Jones returns to find Welsh thinking big
The 6ft 7in second row is not much larger than most of his backs. James Corrigan considers whether size really is everything
The last time Wales played in the Six Nations at Twickenham, Warren Gatland's condemnation of Alun Wyn Jones, whose yellow card for tripping essentially cost them the game, was severe enough to raise doubts about whether the lock would ever appear under him again. Two years on, the giant Osprey has gone straight back into the coach's starting XV, despite having played only 120 minutes of rugby in almost four months.
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One could venture that Jones has travelled from the sin-bin to saintliness in Gatland's eyes, particularly as his inclusion yesterday for the confrontation with England came at the expense of Ryan Jones, the old campaigner who was a man-of-the-match contender in the first two games. But Alun Wyn Jones is not daft and knows both why he has been picked and why his oh-so costly trip to the sin-bin in 2010 is now the most distant of memories. Wales need his line-out expertise. They need him to help supply a backline to which he applies an X-rating.
"England will look to put a lot of emphasis and pressure on our line-out because of the terrifying backs we have," said the 6ft 7in skyscraper yesterday. The message is clear. Feed those monsters; feed them 'til they want no more.
Looking at the size of George North and Co, it must be wondered whether they could ever be satisfied. The backline named by Gatland yesterday is, on average, 26lb heavier and 2in a man taller than the English backline which faced Italy. The full-back Leigh Halfpenny, at 5ft 10in and 13st 3lb, is the only member of the Seismic Seven who is under 6ft and less than 15st.
So much for the old stereotypes; so much for that romantic notion that the Welsh simply have to have the most skilful, the most silky and the most sly backs in the northern hemisphere, because they are also the slightest.
In the famous Welsh Grand Slam backline of 1978, only JPR Williams was taller than Halfpenny. JPR was seen as something of a freak. If he was in the present backline, he would have to concede more than a stone to everyone but Halfpenny – and he would have to concede almost 4st to North.
As the Independent columnist and former England captain Lewis Moody puts it: "This Welsh backline is strange as,traditionally, they always had smaller backs who relied on skill and speed, not muscle – they were known for their flair rather than their physique. And the trouble for England is that what this lot have in size they palpably don't lack in flair or pace."
What has happened in Wales? It's as if the Lilliputians started breeding with the Lomus. Have the Welsh really got taller in the last 34 years? Has the closure of the mines, for instance, allowed the hunch-backed to crawl out from the black crevices and stretch their arms in the sun, and so stretch and expand themselves?
It's a nice thought for the Welsh, especially as French researchers have confirmed the blindingly obvious in a study, published in this month's British Medical Journal, that says success in the World Cup is directly attributable to the size of the players.
However, even though the human being has grown by four inches in the last 150 years, the Welsh have not grown any more or any less than the other five nations in the last four decades. As Ryan Jones said, it only seems that way.
"It's just been the natural progression of rugby and as players we've seen it coming for a long time," he said, reckoning that the myth which grew up around those wee Welsh wonders of 1978 has made the progression appear more pronounced.
"I'd imagine it's the same across the world. There are big lumps in the England side too, and look back to their backline in the Seventies: they weren't all giants. It's the evolution of the game and it will keep on going."
Jones poses an argument with which it is hard to disagree. That BMJ article reveals that the backlines who have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup have been, on average, 2cm taller and 5lb heavier than those who did not. This has nothing to with the biological, though, and everything to do with the professional and, from there, the cultural. Whereas the taller, heavier children in school were once pigeonholed as forwards from the off, now the big boys go towards the backs. And then the conditioning kicks in.
"The athletes coming out are bigger and better," said Ryan Jones. "It's been that way for years – a good big kid will always beat a good small kid. And, it being a confrontational sport, you are always looking for that next big thing – with the emphasis on 'big', I suppose.
"However, to my mind rugby is still a game for all shapes and sizes. You still have your Adam Jones and Shane Williams at the different ends of the spectrum. But, I must admit, it is nice when you're walking out of the tunnel and have the likes of Cuthbert, North and Roberts on your side."
Fans of Shane Williams – all 5ft 7in and 12st 8lb of him – might wince at Jones's words. But Robert Howley, the Wales skills coach, believes there is still a place for twinkled-toed creativity.
"Skill in international rugby is so important because ultimately it's about creating space and being able to put the ball into that space," he said. "Rugby is a passing game and one thing we stress to the players is that while having the physicality, you have to create that space. It's a balance of having size, speed and skills – I'd like to think that skill and speed comes a little bit higher than physicality. I'm sure Shane would agree with that as well."
Shane might, but many don't. Take Adrian Hadley, a sizeable wing who scored two tries in Wales's last-but-one win at Twickenham, in 1988.
"I still think you need flair," he said. "You need the flair to create the space to make the opportunities. But if you put 15 Shane Williams and 15 George Norths against each other, I'd probably put my money on the George Norths."
Come Saturday night, England might just agree.
Gatland gambles on unsung Owens
Ken Owens has been thrown into the deep end and will have to ensure his nerve holds when he throws in at the sharp end. If England could take any solace from Warren Gatland's team announcement yesterday, it was the selection of the Scarlets hooker to make his Six Nations debut.
With Huw Bennett and Matthew Rees injured, Wales have gambled in opting for the24-year-old, but Owens has been performing the hooking duties in training and is confident of helping fix a faltering set-piece. "I wouldn't say we have a line-out crisis – it's not teams figuring out what we are doing, it's just our errors," said Owens, who wins his fourth cap.
"I have worked hard on my throwing-in. I've had my off days with the Scarlets this season, but last week went pretty well."
With the line-out in mind Gatland has chosen the fit-again Alun Wyn Jones over the unlucky Ryan Jones, while, as expected, Sam Warburton returns as captain after recovering from a dead leg.
The only concern is James Hook, the replacement utility back who has been suffering from chicken pox.
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