Duncan Jones: One half of the Hair Bears laid bare
Brian Viner Interviews: Hirsute prop is haring off in pursuit of Grand Slam glory after Wales suffered an educational rout by the All Blacks
Friday 26 January 2007
Another of the public relations storms that seem to be permanently brewing over the artfully coiffed head of Gavin Henson broke on Tuesday, as the South Wales Echo followed up reports that Henson had been spotted whooping it up on a skiing holiday with his girlfriend Charlotte Church, with the assertion of Jonathan Davies, a distinguished predecessor of Henson's in the Welsh back line, that the Ospreys player does not, on current form, deserve a place at inside centre, full-back, or indeed anywhere in the team.
Still, if Henson feels under fire, he can at least draw consolation (or perhaps further misery, given his manifest enjoyment of the limelight) from the fact that whatever he does with the hair gel he is no longer the most follicularly famous rugby player in Wales. That distinction is shared by his fellow Ospreys Duncan and Adam Jones, the props and so-called Hair Bears, who together have given new meaning to the notion of "gigantic locks" on the field of play.
On Wednesday I watched the Welsh squad training at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, better known as the home of Glamorgan County Cricket Club. While Henson slotted drop kicks that, pace Jonathan Davies, seemed laser-like in their accuracy, and the rest of the backs worked on their up'n'unders, the forwards were practising line-outs, with the low afternoon sun behind them conferring a glow on the Duncan Jones barnet that reminded me, very nearly, of Christ in the paintings of Piero della Francesca. Not that I bothered to share this observation with him when we sat down afterwards, but I did ask him about the hair, and whether he will perhaps take us all surprise by one day having it radically strimmed?
"Probably not at the moment," he said, in an accent made in the small village of Blaengwynfi in the Afan Valley. "It pushes my programme height up a bit, you see. And my old man's bald, so one day it [baldness] will be coming for me. No, at the end of the day it's just hair, and if it did come off tomorrow it wouldn't change me as a player."
I nodded solemnly, as if this was the most erudite remark I had heard for some time. "Me and Adam are quite often taken for brothers just because we've both got long curly hair," Jones continued. "We're not quite at the stage of, 'Which one's Ant and which Dec?' I wouldn't compare ourselves with those boys, but we do have quite a lot of conversations with people which finish with them calling me Adam, or calling Adam Duncan."
With the hair behind us, so to speak, it was time to move on to rugby. Although the 28-year-old missed the Grand Slam campaign two years ago with a broken thumb, his form a year ago was one of the few positives in what was otherwise a wretched Six Nations for Wales, and in the summer he got his reward by being asked to captain the side on the tour to Argentina.
"I got a phone call from [coach] Gareth Jenkins, and I was delighted just to have made the squad but when I was asked to captain the side ... obviously that was a great honour. I was up early the next day for a press conference and suddenly I was at the top table. But the way modern rugby is, with leaders all over the field, it's not a case that there is one voice either on the field or in the changing room."
There was not, he insisted, even the slightest twinge of disappointment that he did not retain the captaincy for the forthcoming Six Nations. "No, I didn't expect it at all. Stephen [Jones] is a great leader and an outstanding player, and again I'm just pleased to be in the squad. I'm just concentrating on my form and I'll push on from there, but there's strong competition for tight head between Gethin [Jenkins] and myself, which is good for us and good for Wales."
The first obstacle for the Welsh comes in the formidable form of Ireland on Sunday week, albeit at the Millennium Stadium. "They're one of the favourites, technically very good, and we'll be paying respect to them." Jones said. "We haven't had a very close look at them yet but I'm sure we will. If you look at their performances in the autumn, they make very few mistakes."
Less impressively in the autumn, Wales were hammered 3-41 by the visiting All-Blacks, and while it is no particular disgrace to be squished by New Zealand, I wondered whether Jones and his team-mates might have learnt something about themselves? In particular, what was it like propping against the great Carl Hayman?
A wry smile. "He's a very good prop for someone so tall. He gets very low in the scrum, and he has a very good work rate outside scrum. It was a good battle." Which, with respect, is a bit like a surviving Light Brigade officer saying that he enjoyed "a good battle" at Balaclava. It was a slaughter, wasn't it?
"Well, the All Blacks are the top side in the world, and very physical. They certainly brought something different to the breakdown area. If they see the numbers are light in the ruck they really contest it, and any time we got the ball placement wrong we were punished for it."
I asked Jones, a bright fellow with a degree in sports science, whether he could put into words what it is like in the front row of an international scrum. Not too reminiscent of tea and muffins at Betty's Tea Rooms, I imagine.
"It's very hard to describe. Every prop is different, with a different technique, which people don't always realise. It's all about different shapes and sizes. For instance, it's not a secret that I'm not the biggest guy myself and probably never will be." He looked so rueful saying this that if I could have got my arms around him I would have hugged him. I contented myself by pointing out, obsequiously but accurately, that he is one of the best front-row ball-carriers around.
"Maybe, but the bread and butter for a prop is the scrum and line-out. They're the keys to propping, and you can't neglect those basics, although the way the game is developing you have to get involved elsewhere. The thing is that there's very little you can do on your own. It's about how you work with other people, particularly the hooker, the second row and the flanker on that side of the scrum. How best to use the weight of everyone around you."
Who, I asked, does he most relish the challenge of playing against in this year's championship? "Assuming I get picked? Well, the Irish have two very experienced props. John Hayes has been in good form for Munster, and Marcus Horan, who's just back from injury, really likes to get around the field. I know England have a lot of injuries, but Vickery's back and he's been performing well in the Heineken Cup for Wasps. For the French, [Pieter] De Villiers always offers a stern challenge. For the Italians, [Marco] Bortolami's at Gloucester doing well, and [martin] Castrogiovanni's playing well at Leicester. A lot of players are in form. It will be a challenge, but definitely one to look forward to." And with that, Jones, still in his studs, clattered away to join his team-mates for the short but indubitably hairy journey back to the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel.
The Jones file: A prop with the lot
Birthdate: 18 Sept 1978.
Place: Neath (Wales).
Height: 1.84m/ 6ft 0 1/ 2 .
Weight: 111kg/17st 7lb.
Clubs: Neath 1998-2003; Ospreys 2003-present.
International: 32 Wales caps; 0 tries; 2003 World Cup quarter-finalist.
Honours: Celtic League 2005
Wales: 1999 U21 Grand Slam
Six Nations: 2005 Grand Slam.
Game plan: His speed and mobility are rare in front-row forwards, combined with ball-handling skills almost as good as a back. A good ball-carrier going forward, he is also a reliable and hard-working defensive tackler and a solid scrummager. He is likely to be a key player for Wales and the Ospreys for some time to come.
Style guide: Adam and Duncan Jones are known as the "Hair Bears" because of their unruly hairstyles.
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