Brain power: Law student aiming to send down the Scots

Alun-Wyn Jones, Wales' huge second-rower, tells James Corrigan how he combines smashing opponents and cracking law books
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The Independent Online

One or two of the braver denizens down at Wales HQ call them Warren Gatland's "Trinny and Susannah moments". Yes, when the Kiwi coach dresses down one of the boys, he tends to strip them naked and leave them shivering, with nothing left to conceal their manliness but one rapidly diminishing ego. What not to wear? Where not to err, more like. It has been the critical part of one of the more remarkable makeovers in international sport.

Of course, it has been a welcome revolution, too. Everyone but everyone has stood up and applauded the new man's ruthlessness; not least when it has been directed at some of Wales' favourite sons. Dwayne Peel, James Hook, now Tom Shanklin. None of them is safe. Not even the very biggest and the very best of them.

As the nerve-filled hours counted down to yesterday's announcement of the XV to face Scotland on Sunday, this culture change was being considered by the second-rower who many believe will soon live up to both of those descriptions. At 6ft 6in and over 19st, Alun-Wyn Jones can already claim to be the bulkiest and such were his barnstorming performances in last year's Grand Slam, and indeed, his marked progress since, that experts up and down the land are foreseeing a future as huge as the physique. Yet, Jones, too, once felt the force of the Gatland critique. The Osprey still has the bruises of instant improvement to show for it.

"Yeah, I have actually," replied the 23-year-old when asked if he had ever been singled out for this unique attention. "But I was lucky enough to be given another opportunity and fortunately I did better that second time. Was the message he gave me clear? Very clear. I certainly had no qualms. 'Gats' calls a spade a spade, you know where you stand and that's all you want as a rugby player. If you do good you are told and if you do bad you are told, and it's up to you how you react then. Basically, he's laying down his terms and you can have no argument."

It is why Jones and all of the other squad members have been laughing themselves silly these last few days when they have been quizzed about the dangers of complacency. Pre-Gatland perhaps. Yesterday, the former All Black stunned the assembled media by letting slip that when he and his coaching team arrived "we had to weed out the rubbish". He did not expand, but the inference was clear both in terms of the now absent personnel and the now absent attitude.

Jones remembers those days only too well, although his reminiscences are couched in a rather more political fashion. "It's funny as it was predominantly the same players," he said as he looked back to the end of 2007 and the humiliating World Cup exit in the group stages. "Maybe you can say it would come right in the end, another year or year and a half down the line. But Gats came in and managed to change the focus, change the mentality. With all due respect to the last coaching set-up, the appointment was a breath of fresh air and that was like a side-effect if you like. It was so negative around that five months before and during the World Cup and everything. It was just due."

Certainly to Jones it was. Here was a raw talent barely a year into his international career and the thoughts rattling around that distinctive red headguard were already those of a disgruntled veteran. "Personally I was devastated," he said. "I was so low. I didn't know if I would play for Wales again. All of the players had a long hard look at themselves after that. We did hit rock bottom but it was a trough we just had to go through. But we peaked and we just got to make sure we just keep peaking."

Except in the true sense of the word, Wales have not peaked, not if Jones is correct anyway. He feels the Grand Slam champions have "30 per cent improvement still in us" – Gatland, bless him, generously keeps the figure at 25 per cent – and it is the desire to reach this potential that is spurring the squad on. That and the lessons of the inescapable Welsh past, naturally.

For one thing, Scotland at Murrayfield first up represents a whole Geest ship of slip-ups to a side like Wales who have won there just twice in the last 11 visits. Then there is the one clear Dragonhood weakness, the calls. Without the injured Jonathan Thomas, Jones's role will be crucial as he takes charge of them.

Part of his burgeoning reputation, however small, will be staked on it, particularly for those with the Lions and the future Welsh captaincy in mind. AWJ has apparently been inked into many of the notebooks which matter. "Sure, it's very flattering to be associated with things that mean so much to me," is his response to all that. "But listen, my main objective is the here and now and to play for Wales. And, don't forget, I've got a law degree to finish."

That last point would make him a special case in most other sporting squads, but not in Wales. There is also an outside-centre studying to be a doctor (Jamie Roberts) and an openside flanker studying to be a commercial banker (Martyn Williams). Down at the Vale Hotel it is not a team room they need so much as a classroom. "I've got two more course works to hand in and two more exams to sit – and then I'll be waiting for my resits," he said. Jones' laughter badly concealed a growing urge to finish the degree in the summer. He has a thesis on international criminal law to be handed in on the day before Wales' match in Italy next month and the going is evidently hard.

"The revision isn't too bad but the course work takes a lot of time," he said. "I'm constantly playing catch-up. Have I ever been tempted to give it up? Only before every deadline. I know it sounds stupid, but the thing is I'm quite superstitious, in the way that when I've doing my education my rugby has gone well. I did four of my A levels up in Scotland during the Under-21 World Cup.

"Maybe it's an ego thing as well. Why relinquish the opportunity to have a degree just because I am a professional rugby player? I've just got to keep grinding away and I'll get there." He and Wales both.