Ryan Jones: 'Sexiest man in Wales' out to shimmy and shine on return

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The Independent Online

When a sporting hero returns from his own personal wars there will inevitably be a grand fanfare, although it may interest those who read only the celebrity pages that the trumpets will not necessarily be pointed towards Gavin Henson in Cardiff today. Because Ryan Jones is back. And he just happens to be "the sexiest man in Wales". Officially, that is.

"Look, don't you take the piss as well," said Jones. "Ever since the Welsh papers announced I'd been voted that last week, then that's all anyone's done. Well, everyone but Gav, of course. He's been sulking. I had to cheer him up. 'Gav,' I told him, 'I don't understand how I won it. Even my missus voted for you'."

Jones' laugh filled the team hotel as he said it, but nobody looked around. After all, it is a noise they have become well used to at Wales base camp this week as the 25-year-old has joyously rea-cclimatised himself with an environment he has so cruelly been absent from for 18 months. As he, himself, says: "I came with a bang and left with a bang. Guess it's time for another bang, now." Wales are ready for it. Indeed, they are bang up for it.

One of the biggest rugby myths is the average Dragon's obsession with fleet-footed backs. Sure Barry, Phil, Jonathan and Gerald command a large area of the three-feathered heart but they do not have an autocracy, a fact best evidenced by the fame of Mervyn Davies or more recently Scott Quinnell. Jones is the latest in this line of No 8s, although his nation believes his potential can trump the lot of them. "No pressure there, then," he said. "The expectation's incredible, really. I've only had eight caps."

Yes, the love affair has been short but very intense. It began in the midst of the Grand Slam two years ago when a young man from Newport with floppy hair more suited to an Oasis bass player than a back-row forward started to roll with it, through tackle after tackle. It was an introduction that apparently only Sir Clive Woodward missed in his Lions selection, but his error was highlighted quite spectacularly when as, an emergency call-up, Jones stepped off the plane and produced the performance of the whole tour against Otago. In the Test series, he then proceeded to be the Lions' one true bright spot. His future was all lit up from him.

But then a "core instability in the shoulder" required entire reconstruction and after a season on the sidelines so, inevitably, would his career be. "I sat there at home looking at my arm in a sling and thinking this will never get better," he admitted. "I genuinely thought 'this could be it, it could be over' and all that got me through was thinking about my return, about this week. I would feel the frustration build up and I would close my eyes and imagine the day I'd be back with the boys and it hasn't disappointed. It's funny but when you are holed up for months in these team hotels with all the down time with nowt to do, you do start thinking 'Christ I wish I was at home'. But I can tell you after 10 weeks of watching crap reruns on Sky, it's not all it's cracked up to be. I had to get out."

A call from BBC Wales was the invitation he needed. Soon, Jones was everywhere; on the television, on the radio, on the back pages and more importantly, on the minds of the Welsh rugby fans aghast at watching 'Ruddockgate' unfold and their Grand Slam dream unravel.

"That probably accounts for all the expectation and the 'sexiest man' thing," said Jones. "Wales wanted a reason why it was all going wrong and one of the ones they came up with was that 'Ryan's not here, just wait till he's back'. Hey, if I can have that much of impact on things and I can change the game that much then I will do everything in my power to do it."

"Everything in his power" would form a rather long list. Jones is a natural as his CV bears witness - if only with the revelation that he did not even take up the game until his late teens. Before that football had been his obsession and one that took him to Bristol City as a youth team goalkeeper. His initial Ospreys forays this season have shown that the hands are as safe as ever although he does confess: "I'm not yet battle-hardened - my body's still a bit soft and the knocks are hurting." But it is what he calls "a nice hurt".

"It's part me enjoying everything since I've come back, really," he said. "You know, I've been out of international rugby longer than I was actually in it, but it's like a drug you constantly crave once you've done it once. I've waited a year for this day and not just the 80 minutes. But the police escort through all the fans, running out in front of 80,000 people, knowing that millions are cheering for you at home. It's the little things like that which you miss."

Jones laughed again. Life is just about to get even sexier.