Stephen Jones: 'It's almost like the old days. Llanelli are rising again after a tough few years'
Stephen Jones, the Wales No 10, tells James Corrigan how the Scarlets' thrilling resurrection will test old foes Leicester tonight
Saturday 15 January 2011
Parc y Scarlets hosts the biggest game of its existence when the eponymous heroes face the Tigers this evening.
Yet although this clearly is the time to herald a brave new future there will be many in the stadium unable to escape the ghosts of Leicester past. And for Stephen Jones, one particularly gruesome memory sticks out.
Of course, there was the 2002 Heineken Cup semi-final when Tim Stimpson, with the final play of the game, kicked a penalty from his own half which bounced off and over the crossbar. Jones would not be human, and would definitely not be a West Walian, if he still did not blame the fates for that perceived injustice. Except it is a rather more personal moment that is prone to make him come over all puce. The year was 2004, the scene was Welford Road and the hangover made him feel as if his own head had crashed against a crossbar.
Leicester were desperate to sign the Wales No 10 and duly pulled out all the stops to make him feel at home. Geordan Murphy and Lewis Moody were seconded to entertain Jones but plainly took their responsibilities too seriously. "I returned to my hotel completely smashed," remembered Jones. "I was in a disgraceful state for a professional rugby player."
A few hours later, his alarm went and Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, was there to take him to the meeting. "I spent two hours with the Leicester coaches, talking about their plans and what they wanted from me," said Jones. "But to this day I am ashamed I cannot remember a thing about it. It's all a complete blank."
Who knows whether, given the chance, Leicester could have persuaded him to choose the Midlands over France? But history shows he arrived at the right decision anyway. Jones spent two years at Clermont Auvergne and, on his way to being voted the best outside-half in the French league, took his game to a new level. Four seasons on and the 33-year-old is still operating somewhere near that peak as what may well prove an international swansong in this year's World Cup approaches.
But first there is the Scarlet resurrection to assist and, in that regard, Jones is convinced that here is an opportunity which simply has to be grasped by a side whose handling skills are often the envy of Europe. As perhaps the most attractive team in the competition, the Scarlets have passed, jinked and sidestepped their way to the summit of Pool Five. Victory this evening would take them to the brink of qualifying for the Heineken Cup knockout stages for only the second time in the last six seasons.
What a welcome return it would be. Not just for the citizens of Llanelli and Wales, but for all of the rugby-loving romantics out there. Despite the Scarlets long being Wales' flagbearers in Europe, the mediocrity of the past few seasons meant that hardly gave them any hope of progressing past Leicester and Perpignan. Yet a flame is being relit in this most famous of rugby towns. That little saucepan is rattling again.
"It's almost like the old days," said Jones, who will make his first start in five weeks after recovering from a knee injury. "There's a lot of history behind this fixture. It's a great match for us to be involved in, especially where we've been the last two years. I definitely feel we're coming out of a dip. I feel the place is rising again. We've had a tough few years, not just in Europe but in the Magners [League] as well. To put ourselves in this position – playing against Leicester with so much riding on it – shows how far we've moved on."
Jones won't admit it, but he must have feared the nights had passed when the Scarlets would be daring to challenge the northern hemisphere's biggest clubs. Even if the decline was not considered terminal – although, it has to be said, to some it was – the rebuild confronting the coach Nigel Davies was daunting enough to merit a lengthy estimate of completion. Surely those such as Jones would not be around to enjoy the revival?
Wrong. Jones, himself, has been surprised how fast the foundations have been laid. "We got to the semis four seasons ago, but have had to develop a new squad since then," he said. "It's been impressive how quickly we've done that. It's interesting, our squad is largely made up of players who are young but already have plenty of experience. For example there's [Wales centre] Jonathan Davies, [scrum-half] Tavis Knoyle... That's the direction we're going in and it's just a case of how fast we can carry on propelling forward."
Davies confirms that Jones and other seasoned campaigners such as David Lyons, the former Wallabies No 8, are critical in this progression. For his part, Jones, in his 15th season in the top flight, believes the benefits are two-way. "I'm energised by playing alongside these young guys who want to get better, want to play for the region, want to play for Wales," he said. "It truly is an invigorating place to be, particularly in weeks like this. Yeah, you try to retain an intensity and enthusiasm every day in your work. But there's something about the big European fixtures, when the excitement and nervousness carries you all the way through the week."
Even for the outsider that has been easy to gauge in Llanelli in this build-up. Since the oval-ball temple that was Stradey Park fell victim to the bulldozers three years ago, its replacement has inevitably struggled to live up to the legend. Attendances have been low, atmosphere has been lower. Here is the Parc y Scarlets' chance to witness its own entry being penned in the folklore.
"Nobody loved Stradey more than me but we have to create a new history here," said Jones. "Only the likes of Munster, Leicester, Toulouse and London Wasps have a better record in the Heineken Cup, but the difference is all those clubs have won the tournament. We haven't but that still has to be the long-term goal. Yet what is important is that we play a good brand of rugby so our supporters can get behind us."
In truth, Llanelli wouldn't get behind the Scarlets if they followed the Leicester route to the try-line. Not they have either the personnel or the inclination to do so. "Let's be honest, they are very good at the way they play," said Jones. "It's a more simplistic game plan to ours. They use their forwards a lot more to ball-carry; we pass the ball a lot more. That's just the way it is – the way they are, the way we are. The challenge is to be smart out there and impose our style on them, not vice versa. It will be a clash of styles and it will interesting. But then, it always is against Leicester."
Jones is thinking back, not necessarily to the 46-10 defeat at Welford Road in October – in which, he confesses, "we were put on the canvas" – but more to the start of the century when seemingly every season saw the clubs lock horns. And yes, that fateful Heineken Cup of 2002 does stand out.
"There was that semi-final when we lost by a point, but we also had them in our group that year," pointed out Jones. "We beat them at Stradey 24-12, on a windy night when our defence was excellent. Leicester was always a big game for us. After all, their pack was essentially the England pack and England were dominant then. So it was great we could compete with them. I actually have good memories of Leicester. Fond memories." Just don't mention the hangover.
Stephen Jones 'My Story'. (Mainstream, £17.99)
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