Lyn Jones: Exile returns to big league
The London Welsh coach is back, via Abu Dhabi, and ready for the Premiership, he tells Chris Hewett
Lyn Jones has spent a fair few minutes explaining why London Welsh will function perfectly well without the injured Gavin Henson – "He hasn't done much for three or four years, so we won't miss much" – when he is asked to assess his newly promoted side's chances against Leicester, the perennial Premiership title contenders, in tomorrow's ground-breaking game at the Kassam Stadium. "We don't have a chance without Gav," he replies, the mischievous grin of old spreading across his face. "Just kidding, of course."
There is less to many a sporting maverick than meets the eye, but Jones is a man of substance. He was born in Cwmafan, educated in Ystalyfera and played his rugby – unusually intelligent rugby, much of it – for Neath and Llanelli before coaching Ospreys in the early years of Welsh regionalisation, yet it was never the case that his entire world began and ended somewhere between The Gnoll and Stradey Park. Jones always had a touch of the pioneering spirit about him: all he needed was a good reason to indulge it.
He found that reason in 2008 when, shortly after guiding Ospreys to a first Anglo-Welsh Cup title with a comprehensive victory over Leicester at Twickenham, he left the club "by mutual agreement" and, following a brief spell in the backwater as a coaching consultant at Newport-Gwent Dragons, accepted a post at Al Khubairat, an English-speaking school in Abu Dhabi. Few people could fathom his motive at the time but, after two decades and more in the front line of Welsh rugby, he felt both bruised and jaded – and, perhaps, just a little bored. Not with the union game itself, but with the claustrophobic nature of the sport in west Wales and its accompanying small-mindedness.
"Moving to the Gulf was probably the best thing I've done in my life," he says. "The opportunity came at the right time, but not the right time, if you see what I mean." Not really. Please explain. "I might have been five years too young to get the maximum benefit from it, but the two years or so I spent there were incredibly fulfilling all the same. The experience broadened my horizons and changed my attitude towards pretty much everything: to other races, first and foremost, but also to the art of communicating – to the whole world around me, if I'm honest. I'm a much better coach now, I think. I'm glad I did it."
When London Welsh missed out on promotion in May 2011, they contacted Jones and asked if he might be interested in a move to south-west London. "They were disappointed at not going up and told me they were determined to take the extra step," he says. "After deciding that the time was right family-wise to come back to Britain, I accepted the offer and walked into the club on 10 July last year, without having much of a clue as to what I would find there.
"What I found was a scrumathon, a maulathon. And there was me wanting to play an expansive game. I thought it might take a while, but as the season went on we talked more and more as a group about developing and expanding our game – about being as good as we could be. By the end of February, people were that much more confident, that much braver. Everyone, everywhere was doing everything that little bit better. When we won at Bedford in the first leg of the play-off semi-final, I thought for the first time: 'Hell, there's nothing to stop us now. We'll do this. We'll win promotion.'"
Naturally, this being professional rugby union, winning promotion did not necessarily mean London Welsh would be promoted. There were minimum standards criteria to be met, ambiguities to be identified and exposed, arguments to be had, appeals to be mounted, legal challenges to be threatened and prepared.
At no point did this farrago impact negatively on Jones. He had seen it all before, if not quite in this precise manifestation, during his years in the madhouse of Welsh rugby, and besides, he was not the sort to take the politics of the game completely seriously. A coach who, in his "just for the hell of it" days, had been known to drop his trousers before a training-ground television interview yet keep a straight face from first question to last was unlikely to lose much shut-eye over an outbreak of boardroom hostilities.
Not that he is planning to debag himself on a regular basis now he finds himself in the top echelon of the English club game. "When you've been involved in coaching as long as I have, you're bound to have misjudged things somewhere along the line, to have made mistakes," he admits. "The crux of it is this: are you big and brave enough to look at yourself in the mirror and be honest about those errors? If you are, you improve. I've looked at myself more than once and I'd like to think I've benefited from it. Do I communicate with people differently now? Yes. The years in Abu Dhabi played their part in that."
Communication skills will be at a premium over the coming months. For a start, Henson (left) will need careful handling – tender loving care on the one hand and precise boundary-setting on the other. But Henson, who says he played his best rugby under Jones at Ospreys the best part of a decade ago and believes in him the way the similarly mercurial Danny Cipriani still believes in the semi-retired former England coach Brian Ashton, is not a one-man band. Jones has had to build a new squad almost from scratch, in eight weeks flat. Who is to say he has not saddled himself with half a dozen born-awkward sorts?
"There has been an element of the tombola about it," he acknowledges. "Life becomes very difficult when you don't have your promotion confirmed until the end of June, because by then any English player worth his salt is under contract. That being said, we didn't simply rush in and sign whoever became available. Character is absolutely central when it comes to creating a team and some people slipped through the net because we weren't quite sure about them. You have to be careful. There's no harm in having a Kevin Pietersen type in the dressing room, as long as there's only one. And then, only up to a point."
So here it is: the big time. Tomorrow's home game with the grizzled Midlanders would be difficult enough, even if the word "home" was not entirely misleading. (London Welsh have played only one competitive match at the Kassam in Oxford.) As for the prospect of facing Harlequins, the high-tempo reigning champions, at The Stoop next Friday evening... not even Jones finds much amusement in an immediate five-day turnaround.
"Let's not beat about the bush: this is the toughest start we could have had," he says. "What did I think when I saw the fixture list? My actual thoughts were unprintable, so let's settle for 'wow' and move on. When people ask me if there is really such a massive gap between the Premiership and the Championship, I can only reply: 'God, yes.' Really good players in the Championship stand out like beacons. Standing out in the top league is a very different matter.
"But we have an interesting group of people at the club now: some of them fell out of contract elsewhere; others came through academy set-ups only to find that, for one reason or another, they weren't considered good enough for the senior squad. We have a number of players who took a step backwards in order to move forwards, and that's a powerful motivating force. As tomorrow's game is, for a lot of them, the biggest they've ever played, the motivation will be even greater. Let's see what happens."
3 There are three Premiership clubs with London in their title but strangely none of Wasps, Irish or Welsh are based in the capital.
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