Alun-Wyn Jones happy to channel his anger for Wales
Welsh secondrow’s talent on the pitch will pose the biggest threat to Ireland in Cardiff
Alun-Wyn Jones has been portrayed as “rugby’s angriest man”, a description bestowed by his former international and club team-mate Ryan Jones in a good-natured sideswipe at the curmudgeonly demeanour that the former generally offers for public consumption.
It’s a tag that fits easily from a visual perspective in Jones’s dishevelled, occasionally bearded, wild-eyed, perpetually vexed presence on a pitch. It sometimes bubbles briefly when he is corralled in a media scrum, but to paint him in such monochrome terms would be unfair and ignoring a dichotomy in personality.
Intelligent, articulate and in possession a laconic, dry wit, he can be a hugely engaging interviewee. Beneath the scowl beats the heart of a fierce competitor, a passionate, driven sportsman for whom the team ethos supersedes any individual considerations. He’s also an outstanding rugby player.
There is a suspicion that the 29-year-old Lions, Wales and Ospreys secondrow panders a little to the image, although he argues that his days of venting at team-mates who did not live up to his expectations in terms of attitude and application at training or in matches are long gone.
He struggled to couch his remarks in his younger days and his motivation may have been misconstrued. Whisper it, but he claims to have matured to the extent that his outlook can now be described as “happy and angry”.
When asked about Ryan Jones’s comments, he elaborated: “That’s a bit harsh. I’ve changed. Somebody else referred to me as being grumpy, but I’m not that at all. You can be happy and angry or you can be grumpy and angry. I like to think I’m a happy angry person, if that makes sense.
“You come across a lot of people with a similar personality across all sports. It comes back to are you angry or are you competitive? Is it the same thing? Maybe it’s channelled in a different way. I conduct myself to other players a bit better. In the past, I was probably misguided at times on the training park, but I am able to harness it and employ it on the park, which is where it counts now, with the 80 minutes on the weekend.
He leads by deed. As one Welsh journalist pointed out, when the national side finished last November’s Test series, Jones went straight back to the Ospreys the following week and played in the next seven matches. He cares deeply for the club, something of which a handful of his former team-mates at the Ospreys might never be accused.
He doesn’t differentiate between club and the national side in terms of primacy of effort, nor does he camouflage his feelings, as he regularly demonstrates during the Welsh nation anthem: he belts it out.
There is also substance to the assertion that he offers a less-combustible presence on the pitch, more calculating in his ferocity. In 2010 Jones received a yellow card in a Six Nations match against England for a deliberate trip on Dylan Hartley. During his time in the bin, the English scored 17 points en route to victory.
Afterwards Wales coach Warren Gatland was unequivocal: “It’s absolutely stupid what he’s [Jones] done and to be honest it has probably cost Wales the game.”
This is the same coach who, in 2013, when in charge of the Lions in Australia, turned to Jones to lead the team in the third Test after Sam Warburton was ruled out through injury. He had other choices but picking Jones brooked no argument.
Indeed, the playing with the Lions has had a seminal influence on Jones, helping to shape him as a person and a player. In 2009, he started in the first Test but subsequently lost his place to Simon Shaw and spoke after the tour about where he had to go in terms of fine-tuning his game to be the player that he wanted to be. Four years later in Australia, he was one of the first names on the team-sheet, culminating with the captaincy in that third test.
Those two Lions tours also brought him into contact with Paul O’Connell, a kindred spirit in terms of attitude and work ethic. Perhaps they recognise common virtues in each other.
The pair soldiered together for the Lions but this afternoon in Cardiff their rivalry for 80 minutes with be all-consuming, no quarter asked, none given. O’Connell, the Ireland captain, becomes rugby’s latest centurion, but one of the biggest stumbling blocks to celebrating the occasion with a fourth successive victory in this season’s Six Nations will be staring into a mirror image wearing a Welsh jersey.
“I remember Paul O’Connell saying a while back that the role of a forward, particularly in the tight five, is to do a job that makes other people look good. He has been doing that for Ireland ever since he has had the jersey and that is what you want in your pack. Without blowing too much smoke because he is not a guy who likes that sort of stuff, you associate words like ‘icon’ and ‘talisman’ with him. His play highlights his drive and determination for the team, which is worth more than any individual feat of rugby. He is the ultimate team player.
“I’ve been fortunate to play alongside him on a few occasions in some pretty big games. He is all for the team. He doesn’t speak for the sake of it. There is meaning behind it.”
Even players draw parallels between the two. Welsh blindside flanker and a Lion, Dan Lydiate, articulated the similarities. “He’s [Jones] just relentless, picking himself up off the floor and carrying on. He is a player, like Paul O’Connell, I look up to: it is not about how often they talk, but what they say. Everyone listens and I have a huge admiration for them.”
It’ll be a commonplace view in the Millennium stadium, amongst the red and the green.