“Alun Wyn will go down as one of the greatest players of all time and rightly so.”
As Wayne Pivac reflected on Wales’s 2021 Guinness Six Nations triumph, he reserved special praise for his talismanic, and seemingly ageless, captain.
The words aren’t a case of a coach undeservedly puffing up his skipper, they’re undeniably true – Alun Wyn Jones won’t just go down as one of the greatest Welsh players, greatest locks or even greatest forwards of all-time. He is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Full stop.
His place in Guinness Six Nations and world rugby folklore has long since been secure yet, at the age of 35, the legend continues to grow for a man who has defined an era of Welsh rugby in a way that no-one since perhaps Gareth Edwards or Barry John has.
Any other 35-year-old might have been slowed by a knee injury ruling them out for two months around the turn of the year but not Jones.
‘OUR LEADER ON AND OFF THE FIELD’
Forget not losing a step he, almost impossibly, came back stronger and seemingly better than ever to lead Wales to a sixth Championship title since 2005.
Sixth in the 2021 Championship for tackles made (72), third for defensive breakdowns hit (43), top 15 for attacking breakdowns hit (91), as well as claiming nine lineouts and stealing one – the stats, and Jones’s impact has always gone beyond mere statistical analysis anyway, show no drop off.
“I suspected he would go well [in the Guinness Six Nations], but he surpassed what I thought he would deliver,” said Pivac of Jones in the aftermath of lifting the trophy in Glamorgan on Saturday.
“He was superb and it is not just what you see on a given day in a Test match, it is what he does every minute of every training session. He leads from the front physically and it is just incredible.
“Again, it’s the pride in the jersey and playing for his country. For a small nation, people will say we punch above our weight, but there is a lot of history there and a lot of motivated people.
“He is our leader on the field and off the field. He does a fantastic job.”
A great team are often a reflection of their captain and that certainly applies to the current Wales squad.
Passionate, relentless, driven, physical and possessing a never-say-die attitude that was sorely tested when they trailed, and looked set for defeat, in the opening two rounds against Ireland and Scotland.
On both occasions they dug deep to turn those games into victories before watching England fight back to level their Round 3 clash at 24-24 in Cardiff, before a late surge from the hosts made it three wins in a row.
A team built to stare adversity in the face and overcome it, just like their captain, claiming the title mere months after finishing fifth in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.
“I’m proud of the attitude on the field, but also the discipline off it,” said Jones after getting his hands on the trophy. “We’ve had our blips like most environments have, but to come through it like we have makes me proud not just in a rugby sense but an off-field sense.
“Considering the state of things and what was said going into the campaign, I’m proud to be associated with this group of players, staff and management.”
SUCCESS IN THREE DECADES
Jones’s quest for a fourth Grand Slam – and to join Jason Leonard, Olivier Magne and Fabien Pelous in the most elite of clubs – fell agonisingly, heartbreakingly short in Paris in a game that won’t be forgotten for many years.
Scotland’s Friday evening triumph in Paris provided sweet consolation however, as a fifth Guinness Six Nations title can now be added to the titanic lock’s star-studded CV, with successes in three separate decades.
The 2008 title provided his first, 2012, 2013 and 2019 comprised a 2010s triple-header and this year ensured the 2020s are now ticked off.
The numbers for Jones are staggering and look destined to be added to for a little while yet.
An all-time record 157 Test appearances (with Richie McCaw’s 148 in second place retreating further and further into the rear-view mirror), 21 games at four Rugby World Cups, three British & Irish Lions tours with a fourth this summer a distinct possibility, and one of only seven players to have beaten South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in each of the three major southern hemisphere nations.
Winning the Guinness Six Nations title in three separate decades is simply a testament to his almost unparalleled longevity.
Warren Gatland’s 12-year tenure as head coach will go down as one of the most significant in Welsh rugby history and there are bonafide legends of the game whose entire international careers occurred under his watch.
Take Sam Warburton – 74 Wales caps, two Lions tours and almost a certainty to be selected in the back row of an all-time greatest Wales XV. He made his international debut under Gatland in 2009 and played his last game in Wales red under the same man in 2017.
Yet Jones was already an established player with 20-odd caps by the time the New Zealander took the helm at Principality Stadium and has now won a Guinness Six Nations title in the post-Gatland era.
He spans generations (his teammate in this year’s Championship, Louis Rees-Zammit, was just finishing his first year of primary school as a five-year-old when Jones made his international debut) and an already-secure legacy appears to have more bolstering still to come.
As Neil Jenkins – the first man to achieve 1,000 points in Test rugby – once said of him: “He has always wanted to be the best and strive to be the best, and over a long period he has achieved that.
“He seems to get better with age. Wales have had some incredible rugby players, and he is up there as one of the best, if not the best.”
THE LOVE OF A NATION
Great rugby players are always the most highly-regarded of celebrities in Wales, as the legacies of Edwards, John, Phil Bennett, Shane Williams et al attest, and while Jones’s on-field play isn’t as flashy as those names (the curse of doing your work in the engine room) he is rightly no less loved.
In the aftermath of victory over Ireland that sealed the Grand Slam in the 2019 Championship, Wales centre Jonathan Davies seemed to speak for an entire country when he was captured by the TV cameras saying to Jones: “Thank you mate. I love you.”
That Davies – a two-time British & Irish Lion no less, himself man of the series in New Zealand two summers prior and also a Welsh Test captain – should have such love, respect, deference and, above all, gratitude for Jones shows you how he is held up by his teammates.
The record books are never enough to explain a player like Jones. He may not score many tries, none in his last 50 Tests and only nine in his 157-Test career, he seldom breaks the line with his carries or even tops the tackle count.
But headline statistics are not for Jones. His is a career built largely on the top two inches.
A leader who knows how to win over his teammates, how to win over a referee and most importantly how to win a match.
You don’t end up with a trophy cabinet and career CV like Alun Wyn’s without knowing how to get over the line.
He leads by example, the first to hit the tackle bag in training, the first to temper celebrations and bring his teammates’ focus back to the here and now, the first to shake an opponents’ hand after the final whistle.
As a lock, leader and legend, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Jones is now a champion in three decades and should simply wonder what previously unthinkable achievement is next.