Stephen Jones gains new buzz from life at Wasps
The 34-year-old has no thoughts of international retirement as he embraces his new role in England in style
It is three years since Stephen Jones published an autobiography, under the entirely appropriate title A Thinking Man's Game, in which he lavished praise on the notoriously Vesuvian coach Shaun Edwards, lauding the Wales defence strategist's mastery of structure, his command of technique and his "unique" motivational skills. He also wrote that Edwards "takes defeat very personally" – a line that must have reoccurred to the outside-half as he was kicking his 23rd and final point in the closing seconds of Wasps' comprehensive victory over London Irish at Adams Park last weekend.
Edwards used to coach at Wasps. Now, he coaches the Exiles – a team who have shipped 40 points minimum in each of their three Premiership outings to date, at the alarming rate of one every 115.2 seconds. So what did Jones say to Edwards, this "approachable man whose door is always open", after stripping another layer of varnish from his reputation? The most decorated player in the history of Welsh rugby did not say anything at all, as it turned out. "I thought it best to keep my head down, so I didn't go there," he replies, indicating that, if he has learnt anything over the course of a 16-year professional career, it is the importance of not poking an angry animal with a sharp stick.
Once upon a time, a player from Jones' background – he was born in Aberystwyth, joined Llanelli as a teenager and drank in the Scarlets' special spirit like mother's milk – would have been hopelessly bewildered by the mere mention of a move to London. But Jones has seen too much of this hard old game to be bewildered by anything, except, perhaps, its web of connections and coincidences.
The director of rugby at Wasps is Dai Young, under whose captaincy he played international rugby in the early 2000s, and the backs coach is Shane Howarth, a fellow member of the Wales squad at the 1999 World Cup. That is not the half of it. Jones has just moved to a house in Kew, handily placed for the daily drive to training in Acton. Who should be living along the road? Why, none other than his namesake Lyn, a living Llanelli legend when Jones was closing in on a first professional contract at Stradey Park and now boss at London Welsh, the Premiership newcomers.
And today? When Wasps take on Gloucester at Kingsholm this afternoon, Jones will be pitting his wits against Nigel Davies, one of the fixed points of his career, initially as a fellow midfielder but mostly as a coach. "We go back a long, long way and I have the utmost respect for him," Jones said of Davies, who also left Scarlets at the end of last season for a fresh start in the English shires. "When I first joined Llanelli in '96, he was the automatic choice at inside centre. He was one of the players you watched in the hope of learning something. Sixteen years is a good while, isn't it? He seems to have been a part of my life for ever."
Jones won his 104th cap for Wales in the bronze medal match with Australia at the 2011 World Cup and has not set foot on the Test field since, although he made the bench for the Six Nations win over England in February. Since his move to Wasps, many in his homeland have put two and two together and concluded he is now in international retirement, in the practical sense if not the official one. Can this be true? In a Lions year of all years? Jones played outside-half when the Lions beat the Springboks in Johannesburg last time out – indeed, he was the starting 10 in five of their last six Tests – and is therefore the current owner of the shirt, in so far as anyone ever owns it. Has he really jacked it in?
"No, I have not retired from international rugby," he says, categorically. "I'm definitely available for Wales, and for anything else that might crop up. Whether Wales are still interested in me – well, that's another issue, isn't it? I'm not sure how they view things now: I'm 34, I'm playing my rugby in England and, if I'm honest, my whole focus is on helping Wasps get back to where they once were. Ten years ago, my focus would have been different: I would have looked at things from more of an international perspective. But while I'm concentrating solely on Wasps these days, I would never say 'no' to Wales or the Lions. A Lions year is a massive year, by definition, and this year is a massive one for me. It's just that it's massive in another kind of way."
Young made his initial pitch for Jones two-thirds of the way through last season and it made perfect sense: for all the youthful brio of the latest generation of graduates from Rob Smith's state-of-the-art academy set-up, Wasps were finding it impossible to compensate for the almost complete absence of know-how. "I quickly decided it was an attractive, exciting offer," Jones says. "I'd had my couple of years in French club rugby and enjoyed the experience. Club rugby in England would be different again, so I thought, 'Why not?'"
True to character – Jones is one of the sport's 24-carat good guys, as well as one of its finest practitioners – he did not negotiate an escape clause that would give him a contractual get-out if the worst came to the worst and Wasps were relegated. "The deal was done in April, well before the last game of the season against Newcastle, a match that could have sent them down," he recalls. "I was well aware of the situation the club were in: that last game of the season was an interesting one, that's for sure. But having told Dai I'd be coming, I wouldn't have gone back on it, whatever happened. I'd committed myself, and that was that."
So what did he find when he arrived? "The first thing that struck me was the energy around the place," he says. "It immediately reminded me of the atmosphere at Scarlets two or three years back: a squad short of experience, but with a really strong group of young players coming through the system and starting to push hard for first-team places. These kids at Wasps are not just quality players, but quality people too – people with a work ethic to match their ambition. If I can help them make the best of themselves over the next couple of seasons, I'll be satisfied.
"But this is about making the best of myself, too: I'm as keen to play at the top level as I've ever been. The body might creak a bit now and again, but flesh and blood can put up with a hell of a lot if the mind is fresh and the desire is there. That's where I am right now, I think.
"Maybe some players of my age live purely for the game on a Saturday, but it's never been like that for me. I enjoy the whole working week: I have a smile on my face Monday to Friday because I love the training as well as the playing. Rugby is such a hard sport, a brutal sport, that I couldn't imagine anyone playing well at 34 if their heart wasn't in it. Me? I'm still up for it. Absolutely."
It was back in May that Jones bade the fondest of farewells to his beloved Scarlets, contributing handsomely to a 29-20 victory over Cardiff Blues before exiting stage left to a standing ovation from the home supporters and embarking on a "big night out, although I spent the whole of it in the clubhouse".
He had made well over 300 appearances in the famous red shirt and accumulated a record-breaking 2,850 points. The aforementioned Davies, who would quickly follow Jones out of Llanelli, had this to say before kick-off: "His contribution has been immense. He's instantly recognisable as one of the great Scarlets. For me, he epitomises the modern No 10 in every way."
Davies would, given the choice, prefer Jones to be something less than immense and a long way short of great at Kingsholm today, but knowing him as he does, the coach will not be banking on the finest northern hemisphere outside-half of recent years making a mess of it. As the man himself says: "I haven't come over here to England to take things easy. I'm here to win."
Jones in numbers
23 Points on Wasps debut, v London Irish last week
8 Jones captained Wales eight times in winning a record 104 caps
917 Points scored by Jones for Wales - second only to Neil Jenkins' total of 1,049 points
53 Number of points scored for the Lions, in his six appearances
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