The Lion who found his roar

Three weeks ago Ryan Jones was watching the Lions from the other side of the world. Tomorrow he faces the game of his life. He talked to Chris Hewett
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There has not been a single dissenting voice in respect of his promotion to the starting line-up for tomorrow's second, do-or-die meeting with the All Blacks – quite something, given that Jones was not in the initial 45-man squad for this tour. Those who have seen him operate at first hand have been struck by his power and heavy-framed athleticism, and been even more impressed by his readiness to demand increased effort from his elders and supposed betters.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he has been the star of the tour to date. Some would argue that the competition has been thin, and they would be right: leaving aside the likes of Charlie Hodgson and Chris Cusiter, who have performed exceptionally well in a number of games without ever being seriously considered for a place among the élite, and with the honourable exceptions of Shane Williams, Dwayne Peel, Gethin Jenkins and Donncha O'Callaghan, all of whom have shown the best of themselves at one time or another, Jones has been the main man.

This time last year, he was on the main road to nowhere. The late lamented Celtic Warriors, aided and abetted by the Welsh Rugby Union, had pointed him and his colleagues in the direction of Sayonara Street by folding, suddenly and painfully, at the end of the 2003-04 campaign. At that point, Jones was both without a job and without immediate prospects of finding another one.

"I pushed off to Croatia and Slovenia with the Crawshays boys" – Crawshays being an invitation side of long standing, the Welsh equivalent of the Barbarians – "just to get away from it all," he recalled this week. "It was pretty horrible, that situation, and I wanted no part of it. When the Warriors folded, it took us completely by surprise; one moment we were talking about the prospects for the coming season, the next we were trying to make sense of the fact that there wasn't a team for us to play in. I had a year left on my contract when I was told there would be no more wages from the end of the month.

"Then we had what amounted to a player auction, which was a pretty humiliating experience if I'm honest. All the Warriors players were told to get themselves to the Vale of Glamorgan" – a golf and country club just outside Cardiff where the Welsh national team base themselves before major matches – "and when we arrived, the management from the four other regional teams came into the room and picked the blokes they wanted. It wasn't great, to be fair. Lots of people told me I'd be fine, but until you sign that piece of paper, you don't know, do you? And even then, what does that piece of paper mean? Look at what happened to the Warriors. I'm not sure I'll ever forget that uncertainty."

Jones got lucky, all the same. Lyn Jones, one of the brightest coaches on the western side of the Severn, signed him for the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, and the new boy hit the ground sprinting. He is a big unit, to use the common rugby parlance: heavier than his fellow back-rowers – indeed, he weighs significantly more than the second-rowers, barring the Himalayan Simon Shaw – he is also less than an inch shorter than the tallest men in the original party, Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay. It requires only the briefest examination of Newtonian principles to conclude that the combination of a substantial body mass, an unusual degree of pace and lavish quantities of energy and natural dynamism is more than a little desirable when viewed within the rugby context.

A series of eye-catching displays for the Ospreys resulted in Jones being fast-tracked into the Wales team for the November international against South Africa. He also played the best part of half an hour against the All Blacks a couple of weeks later and thoroughly enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of a five-try encounter, ultimately shaded by the New Zealanders by a single point.

Last weekend, when he replaced the stricken Richard Hill in the first Test, the circumstances were rather different and the stakes a whole lot higher. There was no Millennium Stadium-style roof to keep the ferocious South Island winter from sinking its teeth into the vulnerable acres of the Jade Stadium, and as a consequence, the match was the perfect opposite of that game in Cardiff. Yet Jones prospered once again, manning the barricades with a relish that would have earned the undying regard of both Lawrence Dallaglio and Simon Taylor, the two No 8s invalided out of this tour in its early stages – departures that persuaded Sir Clive Woodward to summon the Welshman from his country's summer programme in North America.

"We didn't play, I'm afraid," he said, preferring to discuss the poverty of the collective effort rather than the richness of his individual contribution. "If you're beaten by a better team, you must always hold up your hands – it happens in sport all over the world, every day of the week, and there is no shame in it. What gets to you is when you don't perform, when there is no justification for the errors you make and the display you produce. That is when it's hard to take.

"There is no doubt that the All Blacks had the lot last weekend – a superb pack and a set of backs capable of scoring from anywhere. There is no hiding from that fact, so why bother to pretend differently? But when we look at ourselves, we know we didn't turn up. That hurts, because the things they say about the Lions are true. Yes, it is the case that when you pull on the jersey, it isn't just you inside it. Everyone is inside that shirt with you, and because of that, the feeling of disappointment is more intense than usual."

On his own admission, Jones is far from the finished product. His fitness is good, but not top-of-the-range; his decision-making is promising, but not infallible. The improvements are certain to come with time, for he has not been playing this game anywhere near as long as his recent achievements suggest he should have been. He was no one's idea of a rugby nut during his days at Bassaleg School, situated between Newport and Caerphilly and the Alma Mater of two previous Lions: Malcolm Thomas, who won a Test cap in New Zealand in 1959, and Stuart Barnes, the outside-half who toured this country 12 years ago. Indeed, he was nearly 17 when he took up the sport, which gives the lie to the theory that a modern-day international has to start training in the playpen, like Jonny Wilkinson.

"I played at the Risca club," he said. "Why? Because all my mates were playing there. I found myself hanging around on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do, so I thought: 'Hell, let's give it a go, as everyone else is.'" Was he always a back-row forward? "To start with," he replied. "Then they chucked me in the second row for a while. I could see their point, because I was a big lad."

And so it has come to this: a must-win Test, the Test of all Tests in terms of this particular Lions tour, against the best side in the world. Jones, a late arrival but an early flourisher, finds himself in that most influential of positions at the rear of the scrum, up against a New Zealand loose trio of contrasting talents, headed up by the ball-stealing genius from Canterbury, Richie McCaw. No pressure, then.

"God, I'll be in a state before the game," he acknowledged. "I always am. I have this morbid fear of going out there where there is no hiding place, where the crowd can see you even if you're invisible. Especially if you're invisible. And it's the greatest challenge of the lot, isn't it? I didn't understand this until I arrived in New Zealand, but the back-row boys are the heroes here. When I visited a local school the other day, every kid I met wanted to be a loose forward and get stuck into the rucks.

"And fair enough, I say. It's a fantastic rugby culture here and I'm honoured to be in a position to experience it. I'll feel even more honoured if we win this Test, of course, and we'll give it everything because we have something to prove, to ourselves as much as anyone. As my father keeps telling me: 'Just make sure there are no regrets.' It's good advice. I intend to take it."