The Jones boy feels at home at No 10

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The Independent Online

Stephen Jones displays all the innocent charms of the ideal boy next door. He is polite and courteous, but at the same time aware of his station, and the new responsibilities he now carries on those solid, but still young, shoulders.

He is vividly aware of the burden placed upon him as the incumbent of the Welsh fly-half position. "I am very conscious of the rich tradition that I now have to uphold, and of course the Welsh public view the Wales No 10 as the most prestigious and influential position and I am greatly enjoying that challenge," he says. These responsibilities, much like those he will assume at club level with Llanelli in this afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final against Northampton, should not be underestimated.

He hails froma dozen or so miles outside Llanelli, the coal-face, or perhaps the main production line, of the nation's mythical outside-half factory. Since Jonathan Davies left for rugby league land back in 1988, many observers have bemoaned the fact that the factory has gone the same way as most of the other traditional Welsh industries - to rack and ruin, a product of development and progress.

Progress my foot. A Welsh team without a talisman at No 10 is like the best champagne without bubbles - a miserable substitute for what's expected. The rugby aficionados down in West Wales, and there are a few, have been whispering for some time that though the rusty conveyor belt may be on a go-slow, every now and again a gem is unearthed - and Jones, they believe, is the latest. Carwyn James, Barry John and Phil Bennett have all gone before, and worn the Scarlet No 10 of Llanelli before donning the same colour and number for Wales. Therein lies his hefty responsibility.

To add to his pressures, Jones has been asked at national level to fill the boots of Neil Jenkins, he of the 70-plus caps and a world-record total of international points to boot - although the "to boot" part had perhaps become the all-consuming facet of Jenkins' game. Maybe there would never be a way of developing his style beyond his current scope. This is where Jones has stepped in, and he has certainly grasped his opportunity with both hands and both feet.

Jones first struck a chord with me just over a year ago, when Llanelli demolished a beleaguered and dispirited Cardiff in the semi-finals of the Welsh Challenge Cup at Bridgend. Then relatively unknown, Jones was centre-stage throughout, orchestrating play as if he was a mature impresario in his pomp. He read the game, passed when appropriate, kicked long, energy-sapping diagonals when required, and ran the show.

"The match against Cardiff up until this season was my career highlight. With Cardiff exiled and playing in England, the match was certainly high profile, and I happened to hit all the right buttons," he recalls modestly.

Since then he has added that touch of arrogance - in the nicest sense, of course, for a boy from Llanelli - and is now not only an organiser but a serious threat at fly-half when he sees fit to be so.

He is a well-built athlete and appears similar in stature to Jonny Wilkinson of Newcastle and England; no doubt both will be vying for the Lions No 10 shirt in Australia next year, along with young Ronan O'Gara from Ireland.

Wilkinson has a far higher profile and reputation, and is a fine all-round player, but Jones will be pressing him hard. Although not as prodigious a goal-kicker as the talented Englishman, he displays more of the canny, Celtic unorthodoxy with which only the best Welsh fly-halves are blessed.

The self-effacing Jones is delighted with his development this season and his successful elevation to the senior Wales team. "I have achieved and exceeded my goals, which were to establish myself firmly in the Llanelli team and to do well in all our club competitions, and then, I hoped, to figure for Wales A," he says.

In the Welsh Cup semi-final two weeks ago against Ebbw Vale, he showed off all his skills in one play. Taking delivery behind a static scrum in midfield inside his own half, he feinted to kick to the right-hand touchline. A dextrous show of the ball, a step inside off his right foot and he was through the opposing pack of forwards. The most delicate of chips over the oncoming defender bounced back into his hands, and while enveloped in an opponent's grasp he still had the vision and wherewithal to slide-rule a cross-kick for his supporting winger nearly to claim a try.

In the blink of an eye he exhibited all the talents necessary to be a top-class international fly-half. There have been many international No 10s who have never shown that amount of skill in a whole career, let alone five seconds.

The finale of a wonderful season for Jones starts this afternoon as Llanelli prepare for battle against the multinational and star-studded Northampton. He relishes the prospect, as he has a healthy respect for the Saints. "They're quality from 1 to 15," he says. "And from my perspectiveand, of course, my half-back partner Rupert Moon's, who has been a colossus for us all, our personal battle with Matt Dawson... should be some challenge."

If Jones can steer Llanelli to one of their greatest victories this afternoon he will go some way to exorcising the ghosts of No 10s past. He can then start shouldering the responsibilities he relishes so much and perhaps even start creating for himself his own spot in the pantheon of Welsh rugby.

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