It has been a strange week at Stradey Park, a week unprecedented in the annals of a rugby ground that sometimes seems to have been constructed from the raw material of history rather than mere bricks and mortar. The funeral of Ray Gravell – international centre and dyed-in-the-wool Scarlet, broadcaster and bon viveur and philosopher king, an actor and a comic and a front-of-house genius, a back-slapper and handshaker who would stand his own round and everyone else's too – took place there on Thursday. Stephen Jones was one of the men who bore the dear departed's coffin and laid it in centre field, watched in silence by a crowd of 9,000 mourners.
"You know, I loved the man," said the outside-half, tucked up on a window seat in the Llanelli players' bar the day before Grav's farewell. "The thing was, he had no negative side to him. He was a massive character, larger than life and all that, but he communicated on such a human level. I've been through my difficult times, especially with Wales, but he was completely positive towards me, totally supportive. He was always on the phone, telling me to back my skills and believe in myself. He'd always give me the time of day, would Grav. I didn't go drinking with him too often, which was probably a good thing, but he didn't need a beer in his hand to be a great bloke. I don't think I've ever come across such infectious enthusiasm in an individual."
Jones has found himself in dire need of encouragement these last few weeks and months. He was brutally criticised by certain sections of the Welsh media during his spell as national captain last season, and having ceded the leadership duties to Gareth Thomas in the run-up to the World Cup – because of injury, not lack of form – he was on the field when Fiji did for the Red Dragonhood with a display of considerable majesty in the final pool game in Nantes. A day later, his friend and mentor Gareth Jenkins was sacked as national coach. What fool said rugby was meant to be fun?
"What happened to Gareth was horrible," he said with a sorry shake of the head. "That whole thing really wasn't nice. It was a bad enough feeling going into a once-every-four-years situation and under-performing, without seeing Gareth lose his job on the back of it. But you know what we're like in Wales: every reaction is an extreme one.
"Actually, when I look back on the Fiji game now, I feel quite proud of some of the things we did. They had a 20-minute period in the first half when they played some staggering stuff. They weren't just good; they were something else. I don't know where I'd put that purple patch of theirs in the list of all the rugby I've encountered, but their running and offloading was unbe-bloody-lievable. I can't remember being caused so many problems in so short a time. And you know, we fought our way back into it from miles behind. Only by playing some special rugby of our own were we able to do that.
"OK, we lost. We probably shouldn't have lost, having taken the lead, but let's be honest enough – big enough – to acknowledge that some of the Fijian rugby was too brilliant for us to handle. It's a fact, and as grown-ups, we ought to be able to accept facts. The same goes for the criticism people have levelled at me. I escape the worst of it, living out west as I do, but I'm aware of the things that are said and written. If it's based on fact – 'Jones isn't playing well because of this and this and this' – I'm fine with it. Some of it's based on nonsense, though, and it's then that I get frustrated."
He does not attract too much in the way of criticism down Stradey way. Phil Davies, who took over as director of rugby when Jenkins cut the cord with Llanelli rugby after 30-odd years as player and coach to work with Wales, holds him in the highest esteem; indeed, he believes his senior playmaker, together with Simon Easterby and Dwayne Peel, is creating an environment in which a generation of breathtakingly attack-minded youngsters will take Scarlets rugby to previously unvisited heights.
"When I watch some of these younger players train, with all the skill and confidence and exuberance imaginable, I'm genuinely excited by the prospect of what we can achieve here," Davies said after naming his side for this evening's Heineken Cup game with Wasps, the reigning champions. "What we're showing at the moment is the intensity and expression I want to see, but not the efficiency. This is where Stephen will be so important to us as we move through these big European games. He has so much experience, so much know-how, and eventually, the penny will drop with those playing alongside him. At some point – and I don't think it will be long in coming – a good team are going to come here and really catch it from us. And Stephen will be at the heart of it."
Unfortunately for Jones and company, they were the ones who caught it last week – from Clermont Auvergne, a lavishly equipped side who have legitimate designs both on the Heineken Cup and the French Championship. Jones was playing for them as recently as two seasons ago, having indulged an outbreak of wanderlust by hitching up with them in their previous incarnation of Montferrand. "That was a funny thing," he recalled. "I'd told everyone I was joining Montferrand, but in my first week, the chairman turned up and told us he was changing our name. It certainly confused a few of the folk back home."
The Scarlets shipped seven tries at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, even though they played particularly well in short spells. Jones was disappointed at the outcome, but not entirely surprised. "I knew we would be up against it over there," he admitted. "When I was at the club it was very clear that they had real ambition, and now that some of their really good academy players are coming through" – Jones singled out Loic Jacquet, the brilliant young lock forward who helped France win the Under-21 world title last year – "I think they'll take a lot of stopping this season. I learnt something during my time there: even though there are big plans for the club, people don't see defeat on a Saturday afternoon as a calamity. If you lose, you accept it and get on with your life. Here in Wales, you don't go too far without being reminded that you've just finished second. And that's putting it mildly."
In Wales, the cup is never half-full or half-empty; rather, it is either overflowing like a waterfall, or as dry as a desert. Graham Henry, the so-called "great redeemer", discovered this to his cost before he headed back to New Zealand in search of a quieter rugby life. So too did his countryman Steve Hansen. Now, a third silver-ferner, Warren Gatland, is trying his luck with the Red Dragonhood. His first game will be the Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham in February – the debut fixture from hell in many eyes.
"Warren certainly has the track record of a genuinely successful coach," said Jones. "He has the reputation of being very focused, very knowledgeable and very hard-nosed. That's good. And anyway, there's only one way for Welsh rugby to go in my opinion. Where are we ranked in the world now? Tenth? It's not great, is it? There again, it's where we find ourselves as a result of our performances in important matches, and we have to face up to the reality of our position. That doesn't mean we have to be negative about it, though. I feel much more optimistic about our rugby than some people I could mention."
Between now and Christmas, he has the opportunity to exorcise some demons. Next week, Wales take on the new world champions, South Africa, in a one-off Test at the Millennium Stadium. Victory would do the Red Dragon nation a power of good, even if, as seems inevitable, the Springboks are seriously challenged on the personnel front. Before that, though, come Wasps – Lawrence Dallaglio and all. The Scarlets dare not lose a home game in the tournament's most competitive pool, especially after drawing a blank in the opening round.
"Yes, it's a big fixture for us – crucial really," Jones admitted. "And what with Grav's funeral and everything, there's more emotion around the place than I can ever remember. This is our last year at Stradey" – the Scarlets will move to a 15,000-capacity stadium on the edge of town next season – "and that just adds to the prevailing atmosphere. Are we right to move away from the old place? I don't think we have a choice if we want to develop as a professional club. This ground is special to us; when you grow up in these parts, you can't stop the history of the place seeping into your bloodstream. But it's time to go somewhere that offers the modern facilities we need. The players have accepted it, and I think the local community have accepted it.
"Wasps? We couldn't have a better match, this week of all weeks. I just hope I don't get too wound up. My game goes right down the pan if I let an occasion get to me, so it will be about focus and discipline and lots of patience. I love this club, this ground, these supporters, and that's a powerful thing. But it's my job to look at the bigger picture, and leave the emotion to others."Reuse content