The bigger they are, the harder they fall – or in rugby union's case, the harder they take being dropped. While some of his more towering team-mates have responded to the sharp release of Warren Gatland's cool hand with a depressing thud, Mark Jones, all 14st of him, has bounced straight back up with a spring in his sidestep.
The new Wales coach clearly likes to make examples of players and in the wing, who returns to face Italy on Cardiff on Saturday after being demoted for the last round of matches, the Kiwi has found the perfect role model for the grouchy and moody. Gatland's message is: work hard and you can work your way back in. Jones understood it immediately. But then, previous experience had informed him that feeling sorry for yourself is the quickest passage to the scrapheap.
"I like to think I'm not a sulker or a moper," said the 28-year-old. "Obviously, being dropped from a national team is one of the worst things that can happen to you, but, because of injuries, I've suffered far worse things that have actually put my career in jeopardy. I'm telling you, if I moped around then, I probably wouldn't have made it back to play rugby at any level, never mind internationally."
The story of how Jones recovered from major reconstructive surgery on both knees and forced his way back into the national team after more than two years out is one of the more uplifting in the physio handbook. The doctors gave him little chance of being able to run again, never mind of ever recording the sub 10.9sec 100m that always identified the Mid-Walian as such an outstanding prospect. For three years, he has remained the No 1 right wing, with only niggling injuries enforcing the occasional absence and not once because of his own perceived shortcomings. Until Twickenham three weeks ago, that is.
Like every other Welshman worthy of his hymn book, Jones was carried back from HQ on a cacophony of euphoria as the 20-year hoodoo was finally cast to the clouds. The songs rang out, the odd can was popped and Jones, known as the squad's chief prankster having left a sheep in the hotel room of his Scarlets team-mate Dwayne Peel on a previous tour, was in his element. But then Gatland pulled him to one side and the Bread of Heavens suddenly turned into the dread of sevens. Would he be jettisoned from the main squad for good and have to be content with pulling on the red shirt only in the compressed form of the game, which admittedly, does suit him so very, very much? With Jamie Roberts, the young Blues flyer, being fast-tracked ahead of him it certainly seemed ominous for this son of a Builth Wells farmer.
"I try not to be negative, but it is difficult to be positive all the time and I have to admit I was gutted when Warren said I was dropped," said Jones. "But that's professional sport for you and I know it's an old cliché but it's so true – what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. No, I was not going to be involved in the Scottish game, but it wasn't as if I was being excluded with no explanation as to what I had to put right. It wasn't as if I had to learn to tackle all over again, or anything. Warren was comfortable with my physicality and actual technique."
So what was the problem then? Was the reason, as one rumour had it, that Gatland was furious that Jones, after coming second best to England's giant Tongan Lesley Vainikolo, had stayed on the floor for a few seconds when he was not actually unconscious. That is so far wide of the mark as to be positively slanderous. "I struggled with my vision for 25 minutes after that," confirmed Jones. "I should have come off really, but wasn't keen on doing that. I just tried to get through it."
So was it the fact that Vainikolo leapt higher than him to collect Jonny Wilkinson's cross-kick and so put in Toby Flood for the try that is the only one Wales have conceded so far in this Six Nations? More likely, but, evidently, still not the reason. "When Vainikolo out-jumped me, I read it early and dropped back to cover the kick," explained Jones. "He was just in a far better position than me to jump for the ball. Things like that are difficult to avoid really. You know, I've looked at that incident time and time again and there was not much I could have done to stop that."
So what was it then? It transpires that Jones just didn't have the blitz spirit, but not in the sense his cruellest critics were suggesting. "It's no secret that under Warren and Shaun [Edwards, the defence coach] we're working on far more of a blitz defence," he said. "Well, for the nine years I've been playing top-level rugby, I've only ever used the slide defence. In the side that played England I was one of only two players who didn't play for the Ospreys and yes, the Ospreys play a blitz defence. So I had a lot to learn, but unfortunately I only had seven to 10 days under the new coaching staff and it was quite a lot to take on board. Probably, too much.
"In that England game, I guess Warren thought that my instinct was taking me back to positioning myself in a slide defence. In that system, when you've got a lot of numbers in front of you, you try to hold them up until the cover comes across. Whereas, this system is different. They want you up in the front line, in their faces, putting the pressure on and if they manage to get it outside you... well it's well done to them really."
Not only is Jones working against his own instinct but also that of the uninitiated supporter. "When somebody sees your opposite number running down the touchline they automatically think it's your fault, but in this system it's not," he said. "It's not about your opposite number, it's about working within the system and trying to stop the ball getting there I suppose. It's difficult and I'm probably not going to be perfect for a while."
Nevertheless, Gatland and Edwards have been impressed by his improvement and attitude and the former emphasised that he had no hesitation in reinstating Jones for an encounter in which his pace and undoubted finishing ability could just prove key. While all the pre-match talk has been on the go-forward danger offered by the Italian front three, their back three appear worryingly affixed to the mark. In contrast, Wales's attacking axis is speed in studs, flamboyance down the flanks and trickery on the touchlines.
"Look at our back three and, I don't want to be arrogant but we're probably more potent than they are if you analyse the names on the team-sheet," agreed Jones. "Of course, names on a sheet mean nothing on the park, but I do like to think that if Shane [Williams], Lee [Byrne] and myself can get the ball in hand in a bit of space we can cause them some problems. Saying that, we haven't beaten them for three years, so we won't be taking them lightly." Jones knows what will happen if Wales dare to, even in victory. Gatland's axe is sharp and he is only too willing to use it.Reuse content