IF ANYTHING was likely to cheer up Welsh rugby fans during the preliminaries to the Five Nations' Championship, it was the return of Robert Jones to the No 9 shirt. After languishing in the wilderness for almost two years, Jones will play against France at the Parc des Princes on Saturday, a sure sign of increasing confidence among the Welsh selectors.
For Jones is a thoroughbred: a thoroughbred Welshman, and a thoroughbred footballer. Small, dark and quick, he looks like a Welsh scrum-half, and he plays like one. The man who replaced him answered none of those descriptions. Rupert Henry St John BarkerMoon was an English import brought in on a residential qualification by the Welsh coach, Alan Davies, to impose a greater physical presence behind a pack whose weaknesses had been undermining Jones's subtle skills. In the short term, the plan worked astonishingly well. Feeding on the enthusiasm of the hook-nosed Moon, Wales were on the brink of the unlikeliest of Grand Slams when England turned them back at Twickenham.
But the renaissance of Wales's front five had been established, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that Moon lacked the finesse to exploit an increasingly effective platform. The campaign for Jones's restoration gathered momentum after the Barbarians' 23-15 victory over South Africa at Lansdowne Road in December, in which he gave the sort of display that has good judges with long memories ranking him third after Haydn Tanner and Gareth Edwards (Jones's own early hero) in the all-time list of Welshscrum-halves.
His half-back partner that day was Craig Chalmers of Scotland, who sounded as pleased as any Welshman last week at the news of the 29-year-old Jones's return to the international stage. "I'll admit that he's a friend of mine," Chalmers said on the phone from Edinburgh, "but even so I couldn't understand it when he wasn't picked for Wales last year." From a stand-off's perspective, Jones's prime asset is his pass, which is long and fast and accurate, with many variations that are the product of endless practice and refinement since the age of eight. "Robert gives you so much time on the ball," Chalmers, who has also played with Jones as a British Lion, said. "It gives you more options. Neil Jenkins will be happy to discover he has a couple of extra seconds every time he gets the ball in Paris. It means the outside-half can stand further away, which makes it harder for the back row to get at you."
Jones is only 5ft 8in, although his compact frame contains 11-and-a-half stone of muscle. "Robert's not a big guy," Chalmers observed, "but he does ask questions of the back row. Maybe he's not as physical as a Gary Armstrong or a Dave Loveridge or a Rupert Moon, but who says a scrum-half has to be? His job is to pass the ball."
The call into Saturday's starting XV came from Gareth Jenkins, Alan Davies's assistant coach. "It was out of the blue," Jones said last week over a sandwich after an informal morning training session with his Swansea and Wales team-mate Anthony Clement. "There had been a lot of hype since the Barbarians game to say I should be picked, but I didn't really expect anything. Gareth Jenkins told me I'd been brought back to do a job, obviously to provide quick ball to the backs, which has been lacking over the last few matches. I've spoken to Alan Davies since, and he's reiterated that."
When he was left out of the side two years ago, Jones was unhappy about both the selection of an Englishman to replace him and the fact that he was made a scapegoat for the forwards' failings. "Alan Davies made that clear to me," he said. "He told me, `Until we get the pack right, so that we can exploit your attributes, you're going to be sitting things out.' He spoke to me early on last season to endorse what he'd said the year before, to say that the pack weren't performing as he wanted, and until that happened they'd stick with Rupert. …