If there have been times in recent seasons when Ryan Jones, the captain of Wales, found himself wondering where his rugby career might be heading, he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that it would lead him into the dark depths of the Ospreys engine room. The Lions loose forward's selection in the second row for tonight's big Heineken Cup contest with London Irish at the Liberty Stadium – a game the home side cannot afford to lose – took everyone by surprise. And yes, that "everyone" included Jones.
"The reasons behind the decision are twofold," explained Scott Johnson, the Welsh region's director of coaching. "Jonathan Thomas started the year at No 8 as Ryan was unavailable for a period of time. He was asked to fill the void and in fairness to him, he's done exceptionally well. I promised Jonathan that once a bloke gets the shirt, it's up to the others to take it off him. As a coaching team, we are supporting him.
"At the same time, we've missed Ryan's contributions and we want him in the team. To put him at No 8 and move Jonathan to lock... it changes calls, line-outs, everything. We didn't want to go down that path on a short turnaround between matches. We need Ryan's industry, bravery and effectiveness, but it's too complicated to start shifting everyone. The players were told of the situation at the same time. We explained the logic to them and there were no issues. Ryan is a great team man and he gave us exactly the response we expected."
Johnson ventured to suggest that Jones, closing in on his 30th birthday, might spend increasing amounts of time in the recesses of the scrum. As for the player himself, there was no indication of whether he would enjoy such a change of scenery, or whether he would rather stick pins in his eyes. He has more pressing concerns right now, not least his place in the Wales set-up ahead of the autumn internationals. Warren Gatland, the national coach, is scheduled to name his squad for the November Tests over the next few days, and given the nature of the opposition – the three major southern hemisphere powers, plus Fiji, who denied Wales a place in the World Cup quarter-finals three years ago – he has little room for error. Match fitness and match hardness will be vital, and Jones is currently in possession of neither. Tonight sees his first start of the season.
Narrowly beaten in Toulon six days ago, Ospreys will throw a full hand of high-class internationals – Lee Byrne, Shane Williams, James Hook, Mike Phillips, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all – at the Exiles, who dug deep to see off Munster at the Madejski Stadium in their opening fixture. A second victory this evening would put London Irish in pole position in the race for a knockout place, but injuries in the back row are hurting them, and they have been forced to omit the England full-back Delon Armitage under the terms of the Elite Player Agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs.
As expected, the ferocious Tongan forward Chris Hala'ufia replaces the stricken Declan Danaher, who injured his knee last Saturday and joined the likes of Steffon Armitage, Richard Thorpe and James Gibson on an ever-growing back-row casualty list. Topsy Ojo, an acknowledged strike runner on the right wing but less renowned as a last line of defence, will wear the No 15 shirt – a positional switch of obvious interest to Dan Biggar and the other tactical kickers in the Ospreys back division.
Cardiff Blues, generally considered to be the second-best regional side in Wales, travel to France for tonight's awkward game against Castres without their most experienced international hand. Martyn Williams, five caps short of a richly-deserved century, is serving a two-week ban, so Sam Warburton, extremely well regarded by the national selectors, starts in the breakaway position.
Australia, meanwhile, will head for Europe next month with a stronger forward unit than initially expected. Mark Chisholm, who played at lock against England in the summer, has recovered from a knee injury and is fit to travel.