Back in 2009, Alun Wyn Jones performed comfortably well enough to have started all three Lions Tests against the Springboks, only to find the tour captain – an unusually substantial tour captain in the shape of Paul O'Connell – standing directly in his way. "Never easy when you're up against the skipper," he said in an interview with this newspaper last year. Jones sounded a little rueful then. Today, he is quite the opposite.
One of the reasons so many Lions aficionados identified Brian O'Driscoll as the obvious man to lead the tourists into the Last Chance Saloon in Sydney on Saturday was that Warren Gatland, the head coach, has never shown much faith in Jones's leadership skills. Time and again, Gatland has had an opportunity to hand him the reins in Wales. Time and again, he has looked elsewhere.
Yet now, in the midst of a fraught and fractured build-up to what the Lions manager, Andy Irvine, branded "the biggest Lions game in 30 or 40 years", Gatland has turned to the 27-year-old lock from Swansea and asked him to play the Martin Johnson role circa 2003, the year England broke Australia in Sydney to win the World Cup by staring down the Wallabies from a height of 6ft 6in-plus.
"I had no inkling about it," the law graduate said in a matter-of-fact tone that suggested he wanted no part of the fuss and bother swirling around the team selection. "I was told at the same time other people were being notified that they hadn't been selected, so it's been a strange morning. Brian? He just congratulated me. Simple as that, nothing more said. He was very professional in his manner and just got on with training. Everyone has done the same. We haven't got a lot of time to waste now, have we? There's a game on Saturday."
Which is when he will come face to face once again with James Horwill. This is better than coming face to boot with the Wallaby captain, all things considered, for it was he who put a two-stitch cut in the Jones visage during the opening Test in Brisbane and spent the subsequent nine days fighting for his rugby-playing freedom. Happily, Jones is not the sort to bear his grudges in public. Asked what he might say to the Queenslander on meeting him for the third time in as many weeks, the Welshman smiled mischievously before replying: "I'll probably congratulate him."
This was a reference to Horwill's second successful appearance before a disciplinary tribunal on a charge of head-stamping, one of rugby's deadlier sins. "It's become a bit of a sideshow," Jones said. "I should imagine there will be some red faces somewhere, as there's been an appeal into the original decision that ended up with the same decision, but that's not for me to comment on. Professional is as professional does, so you just get on with it. Anyway, some people think the cut made an improvement."
Jones is what you might call a regional rugby baby boomer: together with the fitfully brilliant Wales midfielder James Hook, he was among the first tranche of academy products to launch a senior career at Ospreys, one of the principality's fully professionalised hybrid sides, rather than at one of the country's traditional clubs. He also has something in common with the former England captain and Lions forward Lawrence Dallaglio in that he took over the captaincy of his team at a delicate time, when many big names were heading for pastures new. Like Dallaglio, he had the strength of character to make the best of a bad job.
If his critics condemn him for a lack of week-on-week consistency, he is very definitely a Test-class lock when he "turns up", as the saying goes. He said he would approach the ultra-difficult task of derailing the Wallabies, just as they are gathering speed and momentum, as he might approach an awkward game in the Pro 12 league back home.
"Ideally, I want to keep going the way I've been going and not change anything," he remarked. "I'm not about to start telling the backs how to kick, or to pass or to run. And I won't be over-emotional about it, either. You can get swept away with all that: say too much, try too hard. I've been there and done that in the past for the Ospreys, but I learnt a lot during my first year captaining them. Essentially, I'll just carry on doing what I do at the club. I know someone will make the point that this is a different set of circumstances and all the rest of it, but when you set that aside, it's just another rectangle of grass on the other side of the world."
It is more than 60 years since Wales, so often the biggest contributor to a Lions squad, had 10 players in the starting line-up for a Lions Test, the last occasion being here in Australia in 1950 (the tourists, led by the Irish hooker Karl Mullen, played the Wallabies twice on the way home from a fruitless series across the Tasman in New Zealand). Jones believes that recent Welsh failures against the Wallabies, all of them close shaves, have been instructive.
"We've talked a lot about game management on this tour, and that was a big theme with Wales when we had our run of games against them last year," he said. "It will be very relevant on Saturday. If we can play with our heads up, control the game more on our terms and get some fluidity from our set-pieces, I think we'll put ourselves in a good place."Reuse content