Alun-Wyn Jones: 'It's brutal up front – but that's what I love'

Alun-Wyn Jones is the enforcer who'll be going head-to-head with the mighty Bakkies Botha today. Chris Hewett speaks to the Lion about how to counter the Boks' master of the dark arts
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The Independent Online

It is dark and lonely work – not to say perilous to life and limb – but someone has to do it.

One of the keys to subduing the Springboks on Test day is bringing Bakkies Botha to heel: Botha, the enforcer, heir to the great South African second-row hoodlums of the past and thoroughly deserving of his place in the rugby bestiary alongside Salty du Rand, Johan de Bruyn and the spellbindingly violent Moaner van Heerden. The Lions have decided that Alun Wyn Jones is the man they need. And the very best of British to him. He'll need it.

Botha and his strong-arm approach is so central to the South African cause that during the last World Cup, from which the Boks emerged triumphant, the coach Jake White had a habit of removing him from the field the moment he considered a match to be safe. Was this because he was petrified of losing his most potent symbol of resistance to unnecessary injury? "It was partly that," White said during a discussion after the tournament. "And it was partly because I didn't want to lose him because he did something unnecessary to somebody else."

Imagine, then, the extent of Botha's glee when Willie John McBride, captain of the Lions who swept unbeaten through this country in 1974, winning the fights with De Bruyns and Van Heerdens along the way, suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Springboks might be bossed around at the line-out. "Bossing is my game, and we'll see who's talking after the Tests," responded Bakkies. "It's brutal up front and it's what I love. When I'm nearby, people don't boss Victor, either."

By Victor, he meant his second-row partner, Victor Matfield, who just happens to be the finest line-out forward in the sport. Together, they present the most formidable of the many obstacles faced by this Lions team. But if Paul O'Connell must find a way of neutralising Matfield in the ball-winning department, Jones has it doubly hard. Not only must he match Botha in the skills of the game, he must match him in the black arts too.

"He revels in it, doesn't he?" the 23-year-old Welshman says. "That's fine, Good on him. Rugby is a contact sport, after all. I think we know what to expect of the Boks, especially up front, but, I really don't know what they expect of us. And that's the interesting bit. Some of their players have been together for years now, but we're a new team, coming together for this one Test series.

"I'm still raw but I don't lack endeavour. I'm not one to be negative about myself, but when I looked around at the players in this squad who were challenging for a Test place, I thought I was probably up against it. To have been chosen in this company is quite a boost to the confidence."

Born in Swansea – he played his first rugby for Mumbles under-nines – he is a relatively recent convert to the second row of the scrum at senior level, having broken into the Wales side as a blind-side flanker during the tour of Argentina in 2006. When he arrived here with the Lions, he was in the unenviable position of understudying O'Connell in the middle jumper's role. That changed when he scored the winning try off the bench to save the Lions' opening-game blushes in Rustenburg and then played out of his skin in the 74-point jamboree down the road in Johannesburg. Suddenly, the Lions selectors had a problem on their hands, and they solved it by pairing him with O'Connell for the fourth match of the tour, against the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks.

"That involved me switching to the front of the line-out, but whichever way you want to look at it, second row is second row," he argues. "I jump at the front at Ospreys if Ian Evans is fit and playing, and I did it against for Wales against the Boks last autumn, so I know what to expect here. They're good, Matfield and Botha: the old sweet and sour mix. They do what it says on the tin."

Jones is in the final year of a law degree at Swansea University, where his status as an elite athlete means he can supplement his earnings from Ospreys and the Welsh Rugby Union with a £3,000 sports scholarship. There is a price to pay for these blessings, even so. He has brought his books with him on tour and his head is so full of equity and tort that the line-out calls are taking him close to information overload. Happily, he is no stranger to this split-life business. He completed his A-Levels in Glasgow while representing Wales at the Under-21 World Cup.

If the Lions are to win this afternoon, the line-out understanding between Jones, O'Connell and the hooker Lee Mears must be nigh-on perfect. It is no easy thing to develop such empathy in a matter of weeks, especially as Mears, unusually short for a front-row forward at 5ft 8in, has a throwing trajectory all of his own. "Actually, it works well," Jones says. "Because of his size, he gets the ball up onto a plateau in a way taller hookers don't. From now on, all 6ft hookers should kneel down before throwing in."

And O'Connell? How is the relationship coming along with the skipper? "I certainly felt we were all right against the Sharks, but that's the only time we've played together," he said. "I've always been impressed by Paul when we've been on opposite sides. What have I picked up from him here? Lots, although I don't see him as a surrogate father or anything. More of a brother."

On his own admission, Jones has been a slow burner this season. Earlier in the tour, he described his campaign thus: "I wasn't up to scratch for Ospreys at the start of it, the autumn internationals were nothing special and I was a bit flat in the Six Nations." Perhaps because he felt so out of sorts, he refused to discuss the possibility of making the cut for this tour, even with his nearest and dearest.

"My mum and dad were really annoyed with me because I wouldn't talk about the Lions ahead of selection," he says. "But it wasn't a dream for me anyway. You dream of playing for your country, not the Lions. The Lions are beyond a dream. But now I've been picked for this Test, I know it's something special. I won't come to any full realisation of what I've achieved until after the match. But it's a hell of a thing to be involved in and I'm happy I've made it into the side."

There are many in Wales who believe Jones, a highly articulate individual despite his assertion that "my veneer of education is beginning to wear thin", will be appointed captain of the national team sooner rather and later. He has already been given a taster of captaincy at international level, leading a much-changed side to victory over Italy in Rome during this year's Six Nations. Yet if he seems admirably equipped for the role, his first priority is to define himself positionally. "I'm 118kgs, which is a good scrummaging weight for a second-row forward, but if I was asked to shift back to blind-side flanker, I could probably lose a bit fairly quickly and play there without too much trouble," he says. "It's nice to have that option. But the way I see it at the moment, it's life at the coalface for me. I'm comfortable there and I enjoy the challenge."

Of course, challenges of the normal rugby variety and challenges involving Bakkies Botha are very different things. The Lions would dearly love to see Botha leave the field early, tail between legs, as the brutish Van Heerden did after being roughed up by the Lions 35 years ago. However, they will settle for Jones staying the course. If he is standing tall at the line-out at the last knockings this afternoon, he really will have something to discuss with his mum and dad.

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