Jones pleads for Johnson to stay and save Wales

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It seemed rather apt that the build-up to the final act of this sorry Welsh farce was dominated by a player taking umbrage with a Welsh journalist. After all, many believe that this Grand Slam defence started to form itself into the shape of a pear when the captain did something similar six weeks ago.

But unlike Gareth Thomas, this one did not march out of a press conference and then highlight Mike Ruddock's weak grip on his troops by vehemently refusing his coach's demands to return. No, Stephen Jones marched in yesterday and all but grabbed his nemesis by the scruff of the neck.

"Why is everything you write negative, eh?" he said, pointing at the startled local reporter. "You're giving Welsh rugby a real hiding."

It was suggested to the outside-half that had they given Italy a real hiding last week then it might just have been possible to put a positive spin on proceedings. But as it is, the only things positively spinning in Wales at the moment are the fans' heads as they try to fathom how a wooden spoon is a grim possibility against France on Saturday after all the glories of last year.

"Look, it hasn't been a lack of effort or anything, it's just that we've been making mistakes out there," Jones said. "Take last week's game. There was 32 handling errors on our part and that is poor. But that's nothing to do with the coaches, that's down to individuals. So stop criticising them."

When Jones said "them" he meant Scott Johnson and this latest show of "player power" - in the verbal sense only - was undoubtedly on the Australian's behalf. As the day approaches when Ruddock's "emergency " replacement will announce whether he will stay in Wales or leave for the No 2 job in his homeland, the players are getting as excitable as the rest of Wales. But in contrast, these boys in red are dreading what now appears to be an inevitable farewell.

"It would be a huge, huge blow as that would mean we've lost our whole coaching set-up a year before the World Cup." And to those who insist that Wales would have more chance in 2007 without Johnson? "All I can say is they're wrong. Very, very wrong. This man's a one-off. I would honestly say he's the best coach I've ever worked with."

It has become a common entreaty from the squad, whose devotion to this strange Sydneysider has been almost Moonie-like of late. But it is a reciprocal love affair, as Johnson displayed yesterday when staying largely loyal to the side which all but capitulated five days ago (the changes coming in the back row where Colin Charvis has won a "a well-earned rest " and Alix Popham brought in at No 8 to shift Michael Owen to the flank). Perhaps that is what draws the players to him, although Jones was quick to highlight the technical reasons.

"Scott's educated us since he joined us four years ago," he explained. "We were millions of miles off things then. He's instilled a work ethic and done so much from a skills point of view and [in] showing us the importance of doing our homework.

"His attention to detail is incredible. Like on a Sunday morning after a game all your individual contributions will be there on video and he will sit with you and go through everything. He might say 'this is what you're doing wrong, you're catching the ball here [motioning to the left of his body] rather than here [motioning right] and because of that you're putting pressure on the guys outside'.

"And that's what makes him stand out: his understanding of the game. It's second to none. Believe me."

As an exile who plays at Clermont Auvergne, Jones is in a good position to advise on Wales' chances of beating France. "I honestly think we can do it," he said. "If we can cut out the errors and the ball sticks we're definitely capable of it. This lot are beatable."

Wales should heed him. They did last year. Alan Phillips, the team manager, likes to recount a story of the team trudging in at half-time, scrum-caps touching toe-caps. "We were only 15-6 down but in all honesty we'd been hammered," says Phillips. "But then Stephen pipes up, 'Look boys, I know what these bastards are like, I've been living with 'em. If we get at them straight away and get within a few points, their heads will drop and they'll be ours.' Blimey, was he right."

It is a tale Jones must often use himself to wind up the many friends he has made up in his two years over the channel. One of the closest is Aurélien Rougerie, the winger who many remember using Shane Williams as a speed-bump in last year's first-half onslaught. "Don't you worry, I'll text 'Ro Ro' before the game," laughed Jones. And what will you write to him? "I'll say, 'keep it out wide, will you mate, and don't come near me'." At least one journalist last night was wishing he had received such a warning.

Six Nations teams for Cardiff and Rome

WALES (to play France in Cardiff, Saturday, 3.30):

L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets); D James (Llanelli), H Luscombe (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Llanelli), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); Duncan Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Cardiff), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Dragons), R Sidoli (Cardiff), M Owen (Dragons, capt), M Williams (Cardiff), A Popham (Llanelli). Replacements: M Davies (Gloucester), G Jenkins (Cardiff), J Thomas (Ospreys), Dafydd Jones (Llanelli), A Williams (Bath), N Robinson (Cardiff), G Henson (Ospreys).

FRANCE

T Castaignède (Saracens); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), R Ibañez (Wasps), P De Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse), J Thion (Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), T Lièvremont (Biarritz), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français), O Milloud (Bourgoin), L Nallet (Castres), O Magne (London Irish), J-B Ellisalde (Toulouse), L Valbon (Brive), C Heymans (Toulouse).

SCOTLAND (to play Italy in Rome, Saturday, 1.30):

H Southwell (Edinburgh Gunners); C Paterson (Edinburgh), M Di Rollo (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Northampton); G Ross (Leeds), C Cusiter (Border Reivers); G Kerr (Leeds), S Lawson (Glasgow), B Douglas (Border), N Hines (Perpignan), S Murray (Edinburgh), J White (Sale, capt), A Hogg (Edinburgh), S Taylor (Edinburgh). Replacements: D Hall (Edinburgh), C Smith (Edinburgh), A Kellock (Edinburgh), J Petrie (Glasgow), M Blair (Edinburgh), D Parks (Glasgow), S Webster (Edinburgh).

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