Alun Wyn Jones of Wales: the elemental force clad in red
Secondrow will earn his 132nd Test cap when the old enemy England arrive in Cardiff
Alun Wyn Jones will earn his 132nd Wales cap against England on Saturday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Some statistics in rugby are barely worth collating. The “most carries” column, for example, does not necessarily reveal whether a player had a good or even a moderate all-round game. “Metres made” does not show the speed or subtle angles at which they were covered. The number of passes a team makes matters less than their accuracy, their timing and how often they split the opposing defence.
One list, however, never lies. It remains the original and the truest measure of a player’s ultimate worth: how often was he or she deemed good enough to represent their national side? To play international rugby even once is an achievement; to play it virtually non-stop for well over a decade, collecting more than a century of caps and multiple trophies, is to enter the realms of the superhuman.
Most normal people would be hospitalised within 30 seconds of exposure to the ultra-physical professional game. Now imagine the fitness, resilience and bloodymindedness required to cope with 131 Tests in one of the sport’s most demanding positions. Take a look at Alun Wyn Jones during the anthems in Cardiff on Saturday and ask how many lock forwards have been more pivotal to their national team’s identity than Jones for his beloved Wales.
Try telling the Welsh captain he has played in an era of cheap, confetti caps. If anything the game grows steadily less forgiving. Wales have had plenty of fine second-row forwards, from Brian Price, Delme Thomas, Roy John and Rhys Williams to Allan Martin, Bob Norster and Gareth Llewellyn, but Wales’s current captain has outdone them all. When he takes the field for his 132nd Test on Saturday (including nine for the British & Irish Lions), he will move within 16 caps of Richie McCaw, the world’s most garlanded international player, and just a couple short of Wales’s all-time record holder Gethin Jenkins.
Only McCaw, Brian O’Driscoll, George Gregan, Sergio Parisse, Jenkins and Keven Mealamu now stand ahead of him; of that distinguished half dozen, Parisse is the only other still-active gladiator. Not bad company for a plump teenager once told by his Swansea schools coach: “You weren’t made to run fast, you were made to hit rucks.” The record books may show a win ratio of just under 50 per cent in a Welsh jersey but that also tells barely a fraction of the whole story. Bright, articulate and fiercely committed, Gatland’s Wales would have been a very different animal without him. If he were Scottish you might compare him to a defiant monarch of the glen. More apposite, perhaps, to hail him as the relentless Welsh Lion who put the roar in the Mumbles.
It is a few years now since the Guardian was brave – or foolhardy – enough to ask Jones if his career might conceivably have been easier had he been born English. The response was unequivocal. “I’d have moved to Wales. Because I’d rather be Welsh.” He might be a father now, but those who rubbed shoulders with him on the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand still testify to his enduring competitiveness. “People like Alun Wyn have an aura about them,” England’s Jamie George said this week. “He was a big leader on that Lions tour, he is respected around the rugby world and he’s a brilliant player. To have done what he has done is very impressive.”
All of which brings us to the nagging doubt in the back of English minds this week. On recent form the visitors should theoretically be good enough to beat Wales on Saturday; on paper, even without Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Chris Ashton, they still have an array of weaponry. But what if Owen Farrell limps off after five minutes and Wales gain an early foothold? What price then any sense of pre-game complacency in the baying Welsh colosseum?
Under those kind of circumstances, Jones’s influence becomes increasingly apparent. Smart enough to talk proactively to referees, proud enough to keep on pounding away until the end ... if England do win, it will not be through any deficit of Welsh spirit. “They’ve got a few figureheads, especially in their pack,” George said. “Alun Wyn’s a big talisman for them, Ken Owens is another one, Ross Moriarty to a certain extent. They’ve got a few guys who set the tone.”
Quite so. You will not find the word “hywl” on the stats sheets, nor any definitive measures of a player’s heart and soul. In theory, at 33, Alun Wyn should be entering the twilight zone of a fine career. Regardless, shortly after 4.45pm this Saturday, England should still expect to be hit by an elemental force clad in red. If ever there was a day made for Wales’s skipper to channel his inner Dylan Thomas and rage against the dying of the light, this is it.