Jones applies French lessons at heart of Red Dragons' resurgence

After swapping Llanelli for life across the Channel, the Wales fly-half is as revitalised as the national side he could guide to a Grand Slam, writes Paul Newman

The road to recovery has been a long route for the more senior Wales players. Stephen Jones made his debut in a 96-13 defeat by South Africa in Pretoria in 1998, a game he dismisses contemptuously as "a joke". He remembers the hurt only two years ago of losing every Six Nations match and then captaining a team thrashed 43-9 by England's second string in a World Cup warm-up match in Cardiff, a performance described in these pages as "confused, shapeless, spineless, deeply unprofessional and almost entirely skill-free".

The road to recovery has been a long route for the more senior Wales players. Stephen Jones made his debut in a 96-13 defeat by South Africa in Pretoria in 1998, a game he dismisses contemptuously as "a joke". He remembers the hurt only two years ago of losing every Six Nations match and then captaining a team thrashed 43-9 by England's second string in a World Cup warm-up match in Cardiff, a performance described in these pages as "confused, shapeless, spineless, deeply unprofessional and almost entirely skill-free".

Yet tomorrow the 27-year-old fly-half goes with his team to Murrayfield in search of a fourth successive victory in this year's Six Nations Championship, knowing that he could be just a week away from a Grand Slam decider in Cardiff against Ireland, who attempt to extend their own winning run against France today. It is the stuff of dreams, made all the sweeter by the memory of what went before.

"I can't put into words what it means to us," Jones said. "When you play for your country it's the biggest honour you can have, but also the biggest responsibility and when you lose a game you feel terrible. Two years ago we already had the nucleus of our present squad. It's only through hard work - by the players and all the backroom staff - that we've started to turn things around. Now it's a special camp to be involved in. And I think the foundations of our togetherness were put in place when we went through that experience of not winning a game two years ago. We all felt the weight of expectation and I think it toughened the players up."

Much of this season's Welsh hype has passed Jones by. After eight seasons in Llanelli's first team and a lifetime living in Wales, he decided last year that it was time to move on and joined the French side Clermont Auvergne, formerly Montferrand. He has been an instant success, despite playing in a team that struggled in the first half of the season. With 214 points, he is the fifth highest scorer in the country.

"In France, the club game is huge," Jones said. "Before the Six Nations everyone was just focusing on the domestic championship. It was only when the Six Nations was the next game up that people started talking about it. I went back home for the England game and it was just crazy. I love going back to Wales, but in some ways I've been glad to be away from it all in France."

If victory over England confirmed that the Welsh had turned the corner, it was the extraordinary triumph in Jones's adopted country a fortnight ago that suggested they could be on the verge of something special. Reeling from a stunning first-half display by, among others, his club colleague Aurélien Rougerie ("so much for my inside knowledge," Jones admits), the Welsh dragon breathed new fire less than two minutes into the second half when Jones made a mesmerising 50-yard run to set up the first of two tries by Martyn Williams.

"I was looking for support," Jones recalled. "I was looking round and thinking to myself: 'Do I kick it?' But then I thought: 'No, the guys in front of me are quicker than me, so if I kick it they're going to get there first.' So I just held on to it and kept looking and running. I was trying to stretch the defence as much as I could, but I was hoping someone in a red jersey would be there for me. But there was never an outlet, so I knew I would just have to hold on and hope we'd be able to build again, which of course we did. And as it was, Gethin [Jenkins] hit a lovely line for the next phase."

The subsequent try by Williams and conversion by Jones turned the game on its head. Jones said: "If I was in a French jersey, to know that my team had played so well but were only nine points in front at half-time, and then to have that knocked back to just two points within two minutes would have had me thinking: 'Hang on a minute. We've played all the rugby here and had 95 per cent of the game but the score's 15-13.'

"I didn't feel we had done too much wrong in the first half. Sometimes you just have to give the other team credit. We did, perhaps, turn the ball over too easily, but the French played good rugby, kept the ball, scored some cracking tries and could have scored more. I was happy with the score at 15-6, because we had been totally outplayed. I knew the next score would be crucial.

"At half-time everybody kept believing. We hadn't fronted up in defence as we had wanted to and knew we had to improve in the second half. We hadn't had the ball much and knew that when we got it we had to respect it. We had to keep believing in our game plan.

"Then in the second half we had the chance to play the rugby that we wanted. We suddenly got in the lead and the team's character showed in our defence."

Frédéric Michalak's drop goal with 15 minutes remaining levelled the scores at 18-18. Three minutes later a Jones penalty restored the Welsh lead. With six minutes left his drop goal put daylight between the teams.

"I knew the drop goal would mean they would have to score a try," Jones said. "And even if they scored a try we'd have hoped to force them out to the touchline because they would have needed the conversion as well. We had a scrum on the right-hand side of the 22. I was thinking: 'We have to come away with some points here.' Then, when we got such slow ball, I knew it was going to be very hard for us to attack, so I went for the drop goal."

Jones declines even to consider the prospect of a Grand Slam decider against the Irish before tomorrow's game - "We've always struggled at Murrayfield," he cautioned - but knows that, whatever the outcome, the Welsh will continue to play with a smile on their faces.

"We probably look like we're enjoying it because everybody's happy with the game plan, which suits the players we have," he said. "We haven't got any [Joe] Rokocokos or Wendell Sailors. We haven't got any big, powerful men. We're not a ridiculously quick team. What we have to do is pass the ball a lot to create space."

Jones believes the turnaround in Welsh fortunes began under Steve Hansen, Mike Ruddock's predecessor as coach, and has taken time because the Welsh were one of the last nations to come to terms with professionalism.

"When I compare the training and fitness work that I did when I made my debut with what I do now it was a joke," he said. "In 1998, we'd only been professional for a couple of years and I think the southern hemisphere got to grips with it far quicker than us. Then we took time in Wales to get our domestic structure right. It's only recently that we've done so. The Irish, in comparison, got it right very quickly and have been reaping the rewards."

Jones, second in the all-time Wales list of points scorers with 409, believes his own game has improved following his move to France.

"I've had to adapt to a completely different style of play," he said. "For one thing the physicality in the French game is a step up from Britain, especially in club rugby.

"At Llanelli, we also had quite a structured style of play - similar to the way that Wales play - which I knew inside out. The French way of playing can be more pleasurable, though it can be more frustrating. When your team's playing well it's the best game ever. But when things are going wrong, because it's more unstructured, it's very hard to change things around.

"We also play a bit flatter back home. We try to play more in people's faces. In France they play deeper and they come on to the ball at 100mph, so you have to make sure you get your tackle right. To begin with I found it odd that I'd have to look so far back to see the next player down the line, but running on to the ball very hard. Back home you're used to seeing the player in your line of vision."

The player next in Jones's line of vision is usually Gavin Henson, who at 23 is tipped as a long-term successor to the man currently at fly-half. However, it is typical of the spirit within the Welsh squad that Jones insists he feels no rivalry.

"Gavin's a great player. At the moment the way Wales want to play is with what the New Zealanders call two five-eighths, with two players who are decision-makers and kickers. Obviously, Gavin's a talent and I realise that. I'm just glad I'm on the same team."

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