Chris Jones: Playing fast and tight in pursuit of World Cup role

The Sale second row has bulked up without losing any of his prodigious pace and is set for an England breakthrough. Chris Hewett hears how he added discipline to raw talent
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The Independent Online

When the Sale players, aglow with satisfaction and awash with celebratory beer, headed north-west from Twickenham after their Premiership grand final victory over Leicester last month, the Argentinian second-rower Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe awoke from his slumbers in a quiet corner of the coach to find himself with a set of facial decorations - daft moustache, goatee beard, comically exaggerated eyebrows - that proved rather less temporary than he might have hoped. That's the thing with indelible ink. Had the champions' other lock not been the fastest tight forward in European rugby, he too might be wondering how to restore his complexion to its natural state.

No one, but no one, is likely to catch Chris Jones napping. Three seasons ago, when the elongated freak from Manchester first started running in tries from the halfway line, he could complete two laps of a rugby field in the time it took Martin Johnson to make it from the dressing-room door to the tunnel. He was, and remains, unfeasibly quick: the most aerodynamic beanpole in the union game. Except the beanpole has put on some beans since his international debut against Italy in 2004. He was 15st-nothing then, as opposed to 17st-plenty now. When he punches his weight these days, opponents tend to notice.

Which is why England's coaches are wondering whether they have a genuine World Cup contender on their hands. "I think he's beginning to come through," said Andy Robinson, the No 1 selector, after promoting Jones to the starting line-up for today's second and final Cook Cup Test with Australia. "Chris has been on at me for ages now, and I've been dangling the carrot in response. Now, I think he's ready. This is a major opportunity for him. He's had opportunities in the past, acquitted himself reasonably well and then tailed off. This time, we want to see him take it up a level. There is a lot of anger in Chris, a lot of impatience. If it comes out in the right way against the Wallabies, we could be seeing the start of something very interesting."

Jones, a natural athlete whose 6ft 6in frame is constructed along the lines of a high-class greyhound, does not buy Robinson's assessment completely. "I'm not sure anger is the right word," he said. "Frustration? Yes, that sounds about right. I've had my discussions with the coaches and they know how I feel about selection. I want to be in the starting line-up. I want to fight for my place, win it and cement it. To do that in this company, I'll need plenty of aggression. I'd like to think that's beginning to show in my performances in training and on match day. I'm determined to impose myself on this game against the Wallabies because I want to be picked for the next one, against whoever it turns out to be. That's where I'm coming from. I want this to be my time."

Every international-class English lock talks the talk in the same way, and they will all have to walk the walk if they are to catch Robinson's eye. On this tour, Jones has found himself arguing the toss with three rivals: Ben Kay of Leicester, a World Cup winner just beginning to hint at a return to his 2003 form; Alex Brown of Gloucester, perhaps the most athletic line-out operator in the Premiership; and Louis Deacon, the young grafter-mauler who partners Kay at Welford Road. Steve Borthwick of Bath, line-out organiser supreme and a first choice since last November, has also been in town, if only on a watching brief. And back home? Danny Grewcock, master of the dark arts and the most dangerous second-row specimen in captivity, is summoning the furies for another season in the front line, while Simon Shaw is honing his ball-carrying game for one last tilt at the big time.

England cannot be said to be short of steam in the boilerhouse. The question, as ever, is one of balance. They will not play Jones alongside a Borthwick or a Brown, but they might pair him with a genuinely substantial unit - a Grewcock or a Shaw, or even a Kay. The latter is playing a bit of rugby for the first time since he made Jonny Wilkinson's name by fumbling a gilt-edged scoring opportunity in the first half of the World Cup final, thereby helping to create the market for a winning drop goal in the last minute of extra time. The Leicester man is a good two stones heavier, and therefore considerably slower, than Jones. Can they strike a chord together? We will get an idea today, when they run up against Nathan Sharpe and Daniel Vickerman.

"I don't find it particularly helpful looking exclusively at Sharpe and Vickerman, to separate them from the rest of the Wallaby team," Jones said. "They're pretty good in most departments, aren't they?" Very modern, very on-message. But the fact remains: Sharpe and Vickerman are one of the form locking partnerships in Test rugby, and as such, they will provide Robinson and his colleagues with some strong evidence on the subject of England's latest combination.

Until very recently, Jones was viewed primarily as a back-row forward. He played most of his junior rugby, for Stockport Grammar School and Sheffield Hallam University, as a lock; indeed, it was the former Sale second-rower Dave Baldwin who persuaded him to forsake a part-time job in the club's community department in favour of a loan spell with Fylde, the team that gave Bill Beaumont to the world. From there, Jones made a splash with the England seven-a-side team before forcing his way into Sale's senior side as a loose forward.

"Even now, I haven't settled on one position," he admitted. "Sale have used me as a blind-side flanker, a No 8, even an open-side flanker on occasion. It doesn't matter much to me where I'm playing, just so long as I am." This happy-go-lucky flexibility was of limitless value to Sale during their championship run, especially as Sébastien Chabal, their resident piratical villain who proved the centrifugal force in a wonderful back row, was the Premiership's prime candidate for suspension on a weekly basis.

Yet rather like the England coaches, the Sale director of rugby Philippe Saint-André increasingly sees his most versatile player as an engine-room operative. "When Philippe first came to the club, he called me in for a chat," recalled Jones, who turns 26 this time next week. "He said he saw a lot of good things in my game, but didn't see consistency. He also thought I played too loose a style and told me to tighten up. I think I've done that, and I believe I've also delivered the consistency he demanded.

"In return, Philippe and Kingsley Jones [the sharp-witted forwards coach] have handled me very sympathetically. I'm well past 30 games for the season now, but they've been mindful of the danger of overplaying people and they've given me a weekend off, or let me sit out training, whenever possible. As a consequence I feel fine, even at this stage of the campaign. My body is as good as it could be under the circumstances, and I'm perfectly fresh in terms of my mental condition."

A bolter for World Cup preferment, then? England have 14 more matches before the start of the 2007 tournament - they will definitely play the All Blacks at Twickenham on 5 November, irrespective of whether the Premiership clubs agree to release their front-line internationals for the fixture, largely because the proceeds from the game have already been committed to the financing of the new £100m south stand - and therefore have time and space to incorporate new and unusual talents.

It is frequently forgotten that Josh Lewsey, an automatic choice in the side that won the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003, was an outsider looking in as late as the March of that year. Had it not been for an injury to Jason Robinson, he would not have played against Italy in the third round of Six Nations matches, would not have scored two fine tries from full-back and would not, in all likelihood, have displaced Dan Luger from the starting XV.

"Thanks to the big games I've played with Sale this season, I feel I'm better placed to take an opportunity at international level than at any time in the past," Jones said. "I'm not talking only of the good games, like the Premiership final. I'm thinking of the Heineken Cup quarter-final we lost to Biarritz in San Sebastian, and the thumping we took from Munster. That night in Limerick wasn't the greatest for me, by a very long way, but it demonstrated what can happen when you go into a game under-prepared in the heart-and-mind department."

There is no question mark over the Jones heart or the Jones mind as far as the England back-room staff are concerned. "I coached him for the A team game with Ireland back in the spring," said John Wells, the new forwards coach. "It's not the easiest thing for someone to be omitted from the Test squad and asked to turn out for the second-string in a midweek match instead. All I got from Chris was a sense of eagerness, an enthusiasm to get on with business. He came wanting to play, and that told me a lot about him. Let's see how he goes against these Wallabies."