A brief article, but one that could highlight a potentially huge swing in momentum in the ‘battle’ for the Lions leadership this summer.
I have to confess that I am a huge Alun-Wyn Jones fan. First and foremost, he is a class player and passionate with it. I also happen to know just how much playing for the British & Irish Lions means to him.
A brief, and somewhat scary, chat with him at the team hotel after the final Test in Johannesburg in 2009 showed me just how much it meant to him.
To paraphrase his comments …. ‘It’s one thing to play for Wales, but this is something else, something very special’.
There were a few expletives in what he said and it was, admittedly, after a few celebratory sherbets, but the passion was overwhelming. His eyes were boring into me and he was gesticulating like an Italian in a traffic jam- the message was clear. They had lost the series 2-1 and here was a man who could not speak highly enough of the experience and the honour he felt. One step above playing for the National team – and we have all seen what that means to him.
He went on in 2013 to play a leading role in the series win and took over the captaincy from Warburton for the final test. I know that it would, in all likelihood, have gone to O’Connell had he been fit, but he was a clear leader in this group and did the job as if to the manor born.
The odds on him being installed as the leader of the 2017 tour were further enhanced when he was made Captain of Wales to ‘allow’ Warburton to concentrate of playing rather than bearing the additional burden of captaincy. If you then add the other contenders to the melting pot (Hartley, Best , Warburton and the longshot Farrell) and he surely must be in the pound seat?
At least he was for me!
Not so much now though.
You cannot put the blame of defeat against England and Scotland completely at his feet any more than you can accuse Davies, Cuthbert or Biggar of being the prime architects of these two losses. You can, however, point to a couple of critical moments when Alun-Wyn Jones’ decision making and mental strength must be called into doubt.
Could these decisions have changed the balance of the two games and, consequently, the results? Who knows. But they would have put Wales in a different position as far as points on the board were concerned and would have ensured that the scoreboard ‘kept ticking over’ – so critical at this level where small, sometimes miniscule, margins can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Against England, if he had asked Halfpenny to step up and take a pot at goal from almost in front of the posts, instead of taking the scrum, the scores would have opened up further and, psychologically at least, England’s task to come back would have become that little bit harder. Against Scotland, the decision-making process was probably even more muddled. It looked from afar, as if he had crumbled under the force of Biggar’s case to take the kick to touch and have a lineout on Scotland’s 5m line. If he had asked Halfpenny to go for goal, and he had got it, the scores would have been level with 30 minutes left on the clock. Instead, the lineout backfired gifting a penalty to Scotland and, far more importantly giving them a huge mental lift – both to the players on the pitch and to the supporters in the stands! This, to me, was where the momentum shifted, permanently, to Vern Cotter’s men.
Opportunities to win the Series in New Zealand will not come very often and the Lions will need to ‘Think Correctly Under Pressure’ for every minute of every game in order to maximise their chances of winning. They will need to take advantage of every point on offer and make the right decisions at the right time – EVERY time.
Unfortunately, Alun-Wyn Jones has not shown the crystal clear thought process required on a couple of critical occasions. It could cost him the captains ‘armband’ and with it an opportunity to reach the very top of the highest mountain and rugby immortality.