Adam Jones: Tasting success

Adam Jones is not everyone's cup of tea but the Ospreys and Wales tight-head prop is in form and, he tells Chris Hewett, intent on another stirring Twickenham victory
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The statistics confirm a good number of the assumptions people have about Adam Jones – or Adam Rhys Jones, as he is sometimes described in the literature pumped out by the Welsh Rugby Union in an effort to distinguish him from all the other Joneses in the national team. His fighting weight is something above 19st, which reinforces the suspicion that he is unlikely to dance Swan Lake at Covent Garden in the next fortnight; he has just turned 27, which fits in with the general view that tight-head props flower late rather than early. And then there is his try-count: three in the last 137 matches, at the rate of one every two and a half days of playing time. That sounds about right, too.

Last weekend he almost made another of his very occasional trips across the opposition line, and had he done so, the Ospreys would surely have been spared the trauma of their Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat at Saracens and would now be approaching this afternoon's EDF Cup final with Leicester at Twickenham in a far happier frame of mind. Sadly for Jones, he dropped the ball a few feet short of the whitewash, thereby adding credence to another widely-accepted theory about front-row forwards.

"Lots of things summed up our performance at Saracens, and that was one of them," he said this week. "I felt pretty bad about it for a couple of days. There again, we made a lot of mistakes in a lot of areas. How many times did we see people run up their own backsides instead of playing in the right parts of the field? When you're a front-row forward working your bum off all afternoon, it's not the sort of thing you need.

"We allowed ourselves to be dragged into a dogfight, didn't we? That shouldn't have happened. And even when it did, we should have been professional enough to react properly and play our way out of it. I'd have preferred it if we'd been absolutely pasted. At least then we could have held up our hands and said: 'Fair enough, they were better than us'. But to slog away for five years to get into the knock-out stages of the biggest competition in Europe and then bugger it up like that..."

Jones did not for a second suggest that the Ospreys travelled to Watford in the belief that the journey along a wintry M4 would be a bigger challenge than the match itself. "Yes, we'd put 30 points on them in the EDF semi-final a couple of weeks previously, but they were always going to be a different proposition in their own backyard. The first game was played at the Millennium Stadium, where a lot of us seem to spend half our lives. Vicarage Road was a new one on us and whatever it is, it's not quite the Millennium."

He did, however, acknowledge that the mood would be different this afternoon, a change born of the knowledge that anything resembling a Saracens performance against Leicester will leave his team on the painful end of a thorough seeing-to.

Happily for Jones and his kind, unfamiliar surroundings will not be an issue today. This is a rematch of last season's high-scoring final at Twickenham, when Jones and his colleagues recovered from a rough start to finish within six points of the Midlanders. More recently and relevantly, a considerable number of the Ospreys team were involved in the opening fixture of this year's Six Nations Championship, when Wales beat England on the old cabbage patch for the first time in two decades. "We like it there now," said the prop, not wholly ironically.

Important people are now taking a liking to Jones, which is no bad thing a year or so shy of a Lions tour. He has a two-Test jaunt to the South African high veld ahead of him this summer, and a decent showing against the freshly-minted world champions will make him a strong early candidate for a return visit with the cream of the British Isles 13 months from now. He is not the type to count his chickens, but he knows he has a chance. Not to put too fine a point on it, his moment is coming.

"I can't say I've spent much time thinking about the Lions – you can't afford to get ahead of yourself when you're working under people like Lyn Jones at the Ospreys or Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards with Wales," he replied when asked to assess his 2009 prospects. "But you're probably right to point out that there aren't too many tight-head props around and I'd like to think I can use that to my advantage. I wouldn't say I was disappointed at missing out in 2005, when the Lions went to New Zealand under Clive Woodward, but I thought I might have been considered. I'd love to make it this time. I feel more established in the Wales team now – I have 48 caps behind me – and I'm working harder at my rugby than ever before."

Born in Abercrave in the Swansea valley, Jones was educated at Maesydderwen Comprehensive School, which serves the communities around Neath and Port Talbot. Maesydderwen means "field of oaks", and if every pupil turns out like this unusually substantial old boy, the place is well named indeed. When Jones first materialised at international level in 2003, many rugby followers on the English side of the Severn dismissed him, with customary arrogance, as a Bunteresque boyo with a daft hairdo. Little did they know that Jones had immediately impressed a judge as good as Jason Leonard, the most decorated player in the annals of British rugby. "He's a bloody big lump who takes some shifting," said Leonard after one little tête à tête.

"There was a fair bit of criticism about my weight and fitness at certain times," Jones said. "Some of it was misplaced, but there was also some stuff I couldn't argue with." So when Gatland, a quietly-spoken brute on the training field, took over as Wales coach late last year and recruited Edwards, a significantly noisier brute, as his right-hand man, there must have been a good deal of apprehension. "Yes, there was," he said. "But it disappeared once I sat down with Warren and talked it through. He told me what he expected of me, explained a few things about the work ethic he wanted to develop and told me to get on with it. I worked with Mike Cron, another New Zealander, during the 2003 World Cup and learnt a hell of a lot. Warren's the same: very sound technically, very knowledgeable, very hard-edged.

"It's been an education, operating under the new coaching team. I'm fitter, more focused and desperate to play every minute of every game. In the past, I would have had enough after 65 minutes or so and start looking to the bench. Now, I take it personally if I'm substituted. I think we all feel like that in the Wales set-up these days. If you don't play the full 80, or the coaches give you a break by leaving you out of the team, there is a feeling of intense disappointment."

According to Jones, the Ospreys-Wales relationship is a two-way affair. The national team is so dominated by players from the Neath-Swansea collective – precisely half of the 28-man Six Nations squad were Ospreys, and the various starting combinations habitually featured 11 or more of them – that new ideas inevitably filter down to regional level from on high. Yet the stream also flows in the opposite direction.

"We're a very close-knit team," Jones said of the Ospreys. "Even the blokes who don't play too often make a big contribution in keeping us all together on the same track. We have a fantastic level of support, too, and that is another unifying factor. Probably the worst thing about losing at Saracens was the feeling that we'd let down so many people who travelled all those miles and paid all that money to follow us. It's only five seasons since regionalisation" – he scored one of his rare tries while playing his last major game for Neath in the 2003 Celtic League final against Munster – "but we've developed a wonderful team spirit, a real sense of belonging. I think we've been successful in taking that into the Wales environment, and it's an important part of who we are."

By close of play this afternoon, the rest of us will understand more about who the Ospreys might be and where they might be going. If they capitulate to Leicester, so experienced in the art and science of winning on the big occasion, those who argue that they are all front and no substance will feel vindicated. If they win and become the first Welsh side to win a serious tournament involving English opposition in the professional era, the most expensively assembled side in the principality will rest easy for a few weeks.

"Leicester are going through an in-between period," Jones said. "When you bring in a new head man" – Marcelo Loffreda, who coached Argentina to a podium finish at last year's World Cup, moved to Welford Road immediately after the tournament – "it's bound to take a while to find out what's what. But they still have Cockerill [Richard Cockerill, the bullet-headed England hooker of yore] on the coaching team, and he doesn't change.

"It will be a hard game, that's for sure, but there's enough old-school Neath about us to relish the challenge. They beat us in last year's final and while I don't like to talk about revenge, there might be a bit of it in our mindset."