Lyn Jones: 'Us against the English? Motivation is no problem'

Lyn Jones, the Ospreys coach, has transformed the side from a regional hybrid into a national power. Now he is relishing the chance to pitch his high-flyers against leading clubs from across the border
Click to follow

"I remember looking across and thinking," says Lyn Jones, casting back his mind the best part of two decades, "that if people thought I was too small to play Test rugby, this Andy Robinson bloke had bugger-all chance." As it turned out, both men prevailed over the sizeist conspiracy to represent their respective countries. It may yet come to pass that they confront each other again, as international coaches.

Sadly for those who admired the potent combination of ferocity and intelligence that allowed the two flankers to overcome the problems posed by their physical dimensions, and would revel in a resumption of hostilities, it is a very long shot indeed. Even if Robinson fancied the idea of staying on after the 2007 World Cup, he would have to retain the thing to stand any chance of attracting the necessary support. Jones, on the other hand, cannot hope for further advancement while Mike Ruddock has charge of the Red Dragonhood, and if Ruddock keeps Grand-Slamming his way through the Six Nations Championship, he will soon have a job for life.

And while Jones is in the process of establishing himself as a contender for the top job if and when it falls vacant, there are those in the Welsh rugby establishment who would rather stick pins in their own eyes than contemplate the possibility of a non-conformist hard nut from the wild west making them choke on their vol-au-vents. Carwyn James and Gareth Jenkins, the two lost leaders of the game in Wales, were far too opinionated for some tastes and as a result, were never given the keys to the city. More earthy and in-your-face than either of the Llanelli men, Jones may also find himself cast as an eternal outsider.

In which case, he will continue to derive immense satisfaction from his work with the Ospreys. Not the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, as they were known when the Welsh first embraced regionalisation as the only practical means of making professionalism work for them, but the Ospreys, pure and simple. The good folk of Newport may be congenitally incapable of uttering the name "Dragons" without placing the name of their city directly in front of it, but Jones, a moderniser to the tips of his fingers, believes the local acceptance of his side's single identity is a major step along the road to fulfilment.

"I can't speak for the people of Newport - it's up to them whether or not they want to see the bigger picture," he said as the rain swept across the Ospreys' wonderful new training facility at Llandarcy, a 10-minute drive from their spanking new 25,000-capacity stadium, which they share with the footballers of Swansea City. "The people in this area do have the bigger picture in view and they are buying into the Ospreys, connecting with the team on an emotional level, in increasing numbers. There is still a Neath team and a Swansea team, and when they meet in a league match, the old fires still burn. But there are other rugby communities in our catchment area - Maesteg, Aberavon, Bridgend - and they all matter. It is the job of the Ospreys to represent them too, and the change of name will help us do it."

It is widely accepted that the Ospreys - and, by logical extension, their coach - operate at the cutting edge of the regional game. They won the Celtic League last season, they play their rugby in the best stadium outside Cardiff, attract the biggest crowds and boast the most feverish support. (They have already attracted more paying customers than in the whole of last season, and are confidently expected to sell more than 30,000 replica shirts this term - one of the more astounding merchandising successes of this rugby age). They also happen to have on their books the three biggest and most marketable names in Welsh union: the wing Shane Williams, the midfielder Gavin Henson and the back-row forward Ryan Jones.

"Good as gold, all three of them," the coach said, rejecting any notion that Williams' twinkle-toed glamour, Henson's celebrity love life and Jones's capturing of the imagination on an otherwise dolorous Lions tour of New Zealand might make them a handful. "I have no issue with them whatsoever, because they're completely down to earth. They're all injured at the moment, which isn't helping us one little bit, but they're all gagging to play. They're very enthusiastic people, and that is a reflection both of their personal qualities and of the environment we're trying to create here.

"Don't get me wrong: there is definitely a big-fish, small-pond problem in Wales, and I'm glad we've moved away from The Gnoll [the Neath club ground where the Ospreys played the majority of their games last season] to a much bigger venue.

"When we tied up the Celtic League against Edinburgh at the end of last season, there was a sense that some of our players were in danger of becoming little pop stars. The environment there was not big enough to hold them. The new stadium has changed all that and while it will take time for us to grow into it, to turn it into a home, it's where we need to be at this stage of our development."

What stage would that be? "Well, we won the Celtic League earlier than I expected. I reckoned we would be a top-four side last season, but we started well, found ourselves on top of the table pretty much straight away and never came off it. We're a confidence team, and that confidence grew as we went along. Now, of course, teams are coming here with the intention of kicking our backsides, and with the injury problems we're suffering, things are more difficult.

"But these things happen. The reality is that we're on an upward curve, and will continue on it for a number of years. Too much in Welsh rugby has been done on the back of a fag packet, but we have the right facilities, the right professional support and the right habits. We see ourselves as a young Leicester, a side who have handled the transition from old to new as well as anyone and better than most."

Jones has extravagant hopes for the regional game, provided it is given air to breathe and room to flourish. He believes the political balance in Wales is relatively healthy - healthier, certainly, than that in Ireland and Scotland, where the top end of the sport is ruled from the centre with a rod of reinforced iron - and relishes the range of possibilities created by the new Powergen Cup tournament, an Anglo-Welsh arrangement that should, with the grace of God and a following wind, give the Ospreys, the Scarlets, the Blues and the Dragons the chance to sharpen their acts in games that offer more edge and energy than anything in the Celtic League.

"My fear is that there will be more and more international rugby, that we will kill the goose that lays the golden egg," he said. "We've seen other sports reach saturation point - we're seeing it in football now, and we may see it in cricket if we're going to have a situation where the England players travel to the subcontinent eight weeks after winning the Ashes. If the international end of our game is going to continue to attract the level of income required, it has to look after its product better than it does at the moment.

"We can't have people thinking about Test rugby the way they think about buses, that if they miss this one, another will be along in a minute. Passion is everything in rugby. If we lose the sense of the special, we'll have lost everything."

Is today special? The Ospreys at Gloucester, in front of the Kingsholm Shed, in the first round of a new cross-border competition that revives the rivalries of old? Surely, this is the kind of game that matters. Jones grinned, more mischievous than a wagon-load of monkeys. "Look, I played against all those English teams when I was with Neath, and again when I moved to Llanelli. We beat them all the time. What's there to worry about?"

Then, more seriously: "When we travel to Scotland to play the Borders on a Friday night, it's one hell of a job to get the players up for it. When we play Munster in front of a big crowd, I don't have to say a word. Us against the English? I think it will be more of a Munster situation, don't you?"