RWC Special: Jones hunts for credibility with Wales

The Llanelli fly-half is desperate for a change in fortune to prove he is worthy of wearing his nation's most hallowed jersey
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The Independent Online

Bad timing has dogged the career of Stephen Jones, so the raven-haired, Welsh-speaking fly-half from Aberystwyth may feel he is due a change of luck Down Under. It has been Jones's misfortune to inherit the most coveted jersey in the Principality during a period of huge uncertainty in one of the world's recognised rugby hotbeds.

One of the game's immutable laws is that a fly-half is only as good as his pack and, sadly for Jones, his arrival in the national side coincided with the last vestiges of Wales's reputation for producing big, hard-bitten forwards being scattered to the four winds. The emergence of Pontypridd's Ceri Sweeney as a playmaking alternative for the World Cup is just the latest hurdle thrown in Jones's way.

Few doubt that No 10 is Jones's natural position, yet he has also appeared at full-back and inside centre in his five years in the Wales side, under three different coaches. Jones's remarkably consistent, often exceptional, form for Llanelli has in a sense backfired. This obviously durable 25-year-old was shifted around for Wales by two Kiwi coaches, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, engaged in a largely fruitless search of a winning combination. The stamp of Jones's class is that his goal-kicking has held up superbly under pressure - goodness knows what dire straits Wales would have lurched into without his 244 points from 31 caps, making Jones his country's third highest-scorer behind Neil Jenkins (1049) and Paul Thorburn (304).

Jones won his first cap under caretaker coach Dennis John as a replacement in the horrendous 96-13 beating by the Springboks on the 1998 tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa. The programme for the re-match at the Millennium Stadium a year later, when Jones was again on the bench, described him as "uncapped". It did, however, note him as one of Wales's brightest prospects, which was a lot more accurate.

With Llanelli's far more competitive set of forwards at his disposal, Jones has been at the forefront of Welsh club rugby for several years. His intelligent if unflashy distribution, allied with an accurate punting boot, helped the Scarlets win the Welsh Cup last season. They ripped apart Cardiff in the semi-final, when Jones scored a try and helped make five others for his fellow backs. It showed what heights he can achieve, given the platform. In the Heineken Cup, Jones has been to two semi-finals and two quarter-finals with Llanelli.

But for all Jones's honesty, work ethic nature and ready smile, there is no disguising the endurance test he has faced at international level. Every move he makes is under intense scrutiny, not least because a quartet of Welsh fly-half greats - Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, Barry John and Gareth Davies - have their own newspaper columns.

Jones would have been at full-back against the Irish in February 2001 but the foot-and-mouth outbreak forced a postponement. By the summe, Jones had moved up to fly-half for both Tests on the tour to Japan, then out to inside centre against Romania (he switched to 10 after an injury to Swansea's Gavin Henson), and back to fly-half in the rearranged fixture with Ireland in the autumn. A 36-6 hammering in the latter match prompted another reappraisal, with Jones returning to inside centre to accommodate the expensive but greatly anticipated recruit from rugby league, Iestyn Harris.

Harris's debut against Argentina was almost heart-breaking to watch. In another damaging defeat in the Millennium Stadium, Jones sacrificed his own performance to nurse his new team-mate through a faltering, faulty 80 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Jones was back at 10 for the following week's win over Tonga, and stayed there until injury ruled him out of the opening Tests of 2003 against Italy and England - two more setbacks by 30-22 in Rome and 26-9 in Cardiff. Jones was man of the match against Ireland last March, yet even as the award was being announced, he was digesting the agony of two missed dropped-goal attempts in injury time, with Ireland winning 25-24. Bad timing, you see.

When it came to Wales's two-match tour to Australia and New Zealand in June, Jones was one of four skippers named by Henry's successor, Hansen. He actually led the side in the warm-up game against England in August - a proud moment, undoubtedly, despite another heavy defeat - and so for all of one afternoon he became the sixth captain of Hansen's 20-month reign.

"It is huge for me," Jones said, "and perhaps a natural extension of captaining Llanelli. I do a lot of talking on the pitch anyway and I still have experienced players around me." He might have added that captaincy was nothing new, in that he had led Wales Under-21 to the Grand Slam, and skippered the under-18s before that.

Indeed, few players have shown themselves more able to handle the thankless task of guiding Wales forward, positionally and figuratively. Still fewer have had to negotiate as many pitfalls on the path to success as Stephen Jones.

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