Jones the returning leader prepared to carry weight of pressure at No 10

The Scarlets fly-half will face Australia today after a year that has seen him criticised in the Welsh press and then dropped, writes James Corrigan
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The Independent Online

Uneasy lies the headcase who wears the jersey: what is it about Wales and that damned No 10 shirt? One minute it is all that "Great Redeemer" stuff; the very next, the only thing that poor dolt is fit to be redeeming is his pension. Thankless does not begin to describe it. Plain daft probably does.

Nobody has come to know this unbearable lightness of being brilliant/rubbish any better than Stephen Jones, but then it is likely nobody has ever more wanted to. Today, the 29-year-old reclaims the hallowed fly-half berth for Wales's biggest match of the year so far, if not the century, and will be only too aware of the rewards of success and the bankruptcy of failure. To say Jones has been here before is a bit like saying Max Boyce and that goat have. The symbolism will scream out from every corner of the Millennium.

It was 10 months ago at the same stadium, against the same Wallaby opposition, where it had all started to unravel for the West Walian; not for the first time, but certainly for the worst time. It was hardly his fault that Wales were 17-6 to the bad when he retired hurt in the 24th minute, but in the resulting inquest of a thrilling draw he was tried, convicted and all but hung, drawn and three-quartered. The Principality had welcomed a new folklore hero in James Hook and Stephen Jones, whoever he was, had no right to occupy the same planet, let alone the same team-sheet. Gareth Jenkins did not agree and when the Six Nations came around and he opted for his old Scarlet instead of the starlet, all hell and its neighbouring ghettos broke loose.

Jenkins is not a man for understatement – eg "Wales WILL win the World Cup" – and what he says should usually be taken with a spatula of the sodium chloride, but when he talked this week of "a certain Welsh newspaper setting out to destroy Stephen" there was more than a whiff of the "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you". A crude poll was conducted that was only ever going to yield one winner and from there Jones was inevitably cast as the teacher's pet blocking the child genius from the head of the class.

It must have been a blessed relief when he hobbled off early in the humiliating home defeat to Italy. But then, perhaps not. Hook was moved back in from inside centre for the annual doer-or-dier with England and guess what? After four straight defeats the pack suddenly remembered what the ball looked like and an inspired Hook was left to paint the town red and so avert a whitewash. Jones, meanwhile, saw a huge cross emblazoned across his career, marked "derelict". It had to bite, although now looking back this amiable soul can do so with bemusement rather than bitterness.

"It's quite mad really," said Jones, at the Vale of Glamorgan base-camp on Thursday. "For some reason we as Welshmen always like to debate the outside-half position and go in for comparing the players in the starkest of terms. It's always been black and white, with no middle ground. To be honest with you, I don't think my form has gone up and down anything like some of the media or public might have had it over the years. Take last year's Six Nations when a lot was said and written about me. Well, yeah, the Scotland game I found frustrating, but the France game I was pretty happy with my performance and against Italy I came off pretty early. So no, I wasn't too despondent with my showing. And I'm my own harshest critic."

In truth, Jones is nowhere near being that and knows so. He claims, like they all claim, not to read the write-ups or watch the pundits any more, although confesses that in Wales avoiding the outcry is like sidestepping the puddles down Westgate Street come 10pm on matchday. "It's a challenge and a tough one, I'll grant you," he said. "But as a player it's what you have to try do. You just have to focus on the rugby side of things and not get distracted by anything else. Sometimes your mates and family don't help, mind, telling you all that's been said and written."

When he is off-guard, Jones can be rather humorous in this regard and after one particularly wretched defeat he recounted a phone conversation with a relative. "Stephen, have you seen what they're saying about you?" "Look, I don't want to know." Yeah, but you got to listen this, and this, and this, and this." "I said, I don't want to know. "Yeah, but what about what X has said, you've got listen to what X has said." "By the end of the call, I just wanted to string myself up," he laughed. And him, and them and everyone.

Except Jones resists any such feelings of malice as he has long ago accepted that it all comes with this most sacred of territories. "I was aware of the iconic status of the Welsh No 10 as early as I can remember," he says. "Nine, 10, younger probably, whenever my first rugby memory was. It's always spoken about, especially where I grew up in the Llanelli area. You know, this is where Phil Bennett, Barry John and Jonathan Davies were produced. You can't be anything but aware of it when you're growing up."

Still, when you are lying there dreaming of the winning drop-goal, of the ghosting line-break, of the defence-splitting inside ball, they never flash up parental warnings of the gory bits, now do they? They invariably happen, though, even to the geniuses such as Davies. "I'm come in for a lot of flak on more than one occasion and I'm sure there were times when Phil or even Barry did, too," recalls one of Jones's predecessor at both Stradey and country. "All you can do is knuckle down, ignore it – and then try to respond to it." It is fair to say that in Nantes six days ago, Jones delivered a suitable retort.

It was impossible to arrive at Stade la Beaujoire on Sunday lunchtime and imagine a scenario where Jones would usurp Hook for today's "group decider" with the barest murmurs of supporter unrest. Not only did Jones turn up without have played for more than four months, but he had also been stripped of his squad captaincy and Hook had seemingly gone from strength to strength.

What followed was 45 minutes of baffling insecurity, rescued by a cameo of wondrous control. Where Hook had fallen, Jones rose and all of a sudden it was a man-versus-boy debate. Canada could only look on dumbfounded as the elder made his point in the most dramatic of turnarounds.

"It was a clever thing Gareth [Jenkins] did at half-time," explained Alan Phillips, the Wales team manager. "Before addressing the team at half-time he had word with Stephen and the other subs and asked where we were going wrong. Stephen knew exactly and that impressed Gareth hugely. As did his desire to get out there." Indeed, Jones ran out like a player possessed with more than mere conviction.

"You always know when Stephen's excited as he does this thing with his arms, like he's trying to work everyone else up as well," continued Phillips. "I'm not sure I've ever seen him so motivated before, bar maybe during the Grand Slam in Paris two years ago. I'll never forget then how he was the first to run off the pitch at the break when we were lucky just to be down 15-6 down. When the rest got to the dressing room, Stephen was there shouting, 'Look, I know what these bastards are like. If we score the next try their heads will go down and we'll have 'em'. He was playing for a French club at the time so everyone accepted he knew what he was on about. But he was so pumped up I think they'd all have believe him anyway. Sunday reminded me of that."

Phillips is keen to stress, however, that there was so much fashion amongst the passion. "His display got even better when we studied the tapes," he said. "You know, there's this thing on Welsh telly at the moment called Poetry in Motion where they read out poems as a backdrop to slow-mo rugby footage. Well, there was one bit of play from Stephen that would be perfect for it. The way in which he broke the line, the way he slowed down and waited for [Colin] Charvis to appear on his shoulder and, then, the way he turned his back into the defender before delivering the killer pass. It was a classic outside-half move."

Jones would doubtless blush if he heard such a plaudit, for here is a man who says "I'm not comfortable talking about myself". He just lets everyone else do it for him. And someone needs to concentrate on the rugby. "At 10 you are the decision-maker," he says. "You are the one who has to call the correct patterns, the one who has to see how they're defending, what moves may best break down the defence, what elements are going well that you should persevere with. There is really so much to do. You can't start losing your head." After all, they have a guillotine for that.