Jones focuses new Wales on old score

It is more than 50 years since the Red Dragon beat the All Blacks. But their fly-half believes they now have the creativity and confidence to end that sequence
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The Independent Online

Four months on, almost to the day, Jones is back in red - Grand Slam dragon red, rather than the faded Lions version - and Carter is back in black, having recovered from a broken leg in double-quick time and confirmed his fitness by making several zillion tackles in his rehab match for Canterbury. Is there no respite? When Jones was invited to discuss that 48-point defeat in the New Zealand capital as a means of placing this afternoon's resumption of hostilities in some sort of perspective, it was difficult not to notice a momentary flicker of pain flash across his dark, West Walian features.

Fortunately, he is too good-humoured a man - too positive, too honest and too fair-minded - to cast doubt on the authenticity of someone else's masterpiece in an effort to make his own work look better by comparison. "I take my hat off to the bloke," he said. "I did then, and I do now. Carter played the complete game that night. Running, kicking, defence, game management, choice of options - it was the all-round nature of the performance that did it for me. A lot of outside-halves are good at certain parts of the role, but to put everything together like that is pretty special."

All of which begs the obvious question. Wales in general, and Jones in particular, must deal with Carter at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon if they are to stand an earthly of prevailing over New Zealand for the first time in more than half a century. Assuming an act of God is not imminent, is it possible for mere mortals to achieve such a feat? Yes it is, according to the stand-off from Aberystwyth. Very definitely.

"It's about pressure, isn't it?" he said. "There are two aspects to this, and it's all about what we do, and how successful we are, at the contact area. If we win the collisions, a couple of things will happen. Firstly, we'll stop Carter playing the kind of game he played in Wellington, because he'll spend a lot less time on the front foot. Secondly, it will give us the chance to get our own attacking game going. If you give someone like Carter space, he's superb. There again, we gave ourselves some space last season, and we played enough good rugby to win ourselves a Slam. The All Blacks are incredibly efficient around the tackle, so that's the crucial target for us. The Lions didn't win too many battles there last summer. We have to make sure we win our share."

Jones has 48 caps now, having made his debut as a replacement against the Springboks in 1998. For a considerable chunk of his seven-year stretch as an international playmaker, he has been damned with faint praise at best and, at worst, dismissed as a workaday blue-collar operative. Neil Jenkins, folk hero to the masses and goal-kicker supreme, had a touch of the stardust about him despite the earthiness of his approach to the game, while Arwel Thomas was the visionary free spirit, a heavyweight talent uncomfortably confined in a bantamweight's body. Behind these two, Jones had to work double time for any recognition he might receive outside of Llanelli, where he learnt his trade at the knee of Gareth Jenkins.

Yet there has always been a dash of romance about him, despite early assumptions that he was more mechanic than artist, and it started to flower the moment Wales threw off the straitjacket and attacked their opponents, New Zealand first and then England, in the 2003 World Cup. Slowly but surely, Jones increased the levels of dynamism and adventure in the mix until the Red Dragonhood found themselves beating the French at their own game with an extraordinary explosion of second-half joie de vivre in Paris last spring. Sir Clive Woodward was not the only observer who fell in love with Jones' style that day, but he was undoubtedly the most influential. Three months or so later, he picked Jones at outside-half for the first Lions Test and relocated Jonny Wilkinson, no less, to inside centre.

Those Frenchmen who found themselves on the painful end of Jones' commanding contribution to that dramatic Six Nations contest were not slow to point out that this extra dimension to his game had been developed in ... France, as coincidence would have it. He is now in his second season with Clermont Auvergne, who used to call themselves Montferrand, and is keen to spend more time in Le Championnat. Negotiations are in progress, and if Jones has his way, he will sign an extension to his current deal at Parc des Sports Marcel-Michelin, which ends early next summer.

"The game is less structured in France," he explained. "The big emphasis there, and the thing that has changed me most as an outside-half, is on playing right up against the opposition. The coaches keep saying: 'Attack the line, attack the line.' If I drop off and try to play too deep, they criticise me straight away. 'What are you doing back there?' they ask. 'You can't do anything useful from that position.' I think they're right. It's harder to play in your opponents' faces, but the way the game is now, the heavier the traffic, the more telling the pass.

"I've developed as a person, as well. The language barrier was a big thing to come to terms with, and I knew very little about French rugby culture. It was a pretty significant move to make, but it's been an experience and an education. Now I feel at home with both the lifestyle and the style of rugby, I'd like to stay on. It's been good for me."

With Gareth Thomas, the Wales full-back and captain, adding to his own game through his association with a Toulouse side who reminded the British audience of their unique attacking potency by inflicting some astonishing rugby on Wasps in the Heineken Cup last weekend, the Millennium Stadium crowd have good reason to expect a resumption of last season's free-running exuberance in this first outing of the international campaign, regardless of the daunting quality of the opposition. But by the same yardstick, the absence of a fistful of injured Lions could easily serve to restrict Welsh ambition, especially as three central components of the 2004-05 strategy - the sniping half-back Dwayne Peel, the wide-roaming prop Gethin Jenkins and the invaluable support runner Martyn Williams - are among the non-starters.

"People may see it that way, but I feel confident that last season's style can be reproduced with this set of players," argued Jones. "The most striking thing about the squad now is that we've developed genuine competition for places throughout the side. It used to be the case that England, say, had much more of a competitive environment, but while we'll never have the numbers they have, we do have a much larger bank of good individual players who are comfortable with the strategy than we had five years ago. I don't believe we'll turn away from the kind of rugby that served us well last year, because it so obviously suits us. We have to pass the ball because we're not big enough to bang it up the middle all day. We have to give it some width because we're not physical enough to go running into the guts of the opposition. There's no future for us in that sort of rugby."

Too right. By common consent, rugby union has taken a fair few steps up the mountainside since England clapped their big hairy paws around the Webb Ellis Trophy after squeezing the pips out of Wales, France and Australia in the knock-out stage of the 2003 tournament. (Two tries in four and a half hours of muscle-bound marmalisation told its own tale). Jones and his colleagues, ranked in the world's top five, are counted among the movers and shakers of the new rugby after spending decades as victims of the old. It is proof, as if any were needed, that sport is cyclical in nature. Who knows? This may be the moment when the Welsh reassert their superiority over their fellow rugby obsessives and kindred spirits from the back end of beyond, 52 years after their last triumph.

"When you're a kid growing up in a rugby environment, you're incredibly aware of the history and the records and the deeds of the past," Jones said. "And I respect that history now. But that's all it is, isn't it? History. It's not the here and now, which is what interests me most. Fifty-odd years ago, we beat the All Blacks. We haven't done it since. If we win this one - and there's nothing I'd love more - I won't be thinking about 1953. I'll be thinking about this day and this team, and savouring every minute of it."