As Wales prepare to challenge for a return to glory at the 2019 Six Nations Championship, they need look no further than captain Alun Wyn Jones to inspire them.
Leading his country as stand-in on several occasions before his permanent appointment in 2017, the Ospreys lock has been a mainstay of the Welsh side for more than a decade.
A second-place finish at last year’s Championship represented a welcome improvement from the fifth-place finish in 2017, and there are hopes among the Welsh contingent that they can go one better this time around.
He has become a legendary figure and Jones will be eager to get Wales off to a flying start in the Guinness Six Nations opener against France in Paris on 1 February.
STRONG FIRST IMPRESSIONS
One of the titans of Welsh rugby, Jones began his career as a flanker before shifting to his now hugely successful position at lock.
He burst onto the scene in 2005 with Ospreys and the Wales Under-21s, making his club debut in August with international honours not far away.
Less than a year later, he debuted in Argentina and started both Tests as Wales suffered their first ever series defeat against Los Pumas.
But Jones made an impression and was used off the bench in the 2006 Autumn International against New Zealand, his first appearance at lock for his country.
Everything continued in the right direction for Jones, excelling at lock in the 2007 Six Nations Championship with head coach Gareth Jenkins keeping him on the field for every minute.
He wasn’t included in a weakened squad to tour Australia in 2007 but featured in all four of Wales’ matches in the disappointing 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign.
Jones was however part of an imperious Welsh team that conceded just two tries en route to the 2008 Championship Grand Slam, their first success under new coach Warren Gatland.
Jones was handed the captaincy for the first time against Italy in the 2009 Championship, becoming the youngest forward to captain Wales since 1934.
The decision instantly paid off as Jones led his country to a 20-15 victory in Rome, with his offload involved in the build-up to Shane Williams’ try.
But he wouldn’t don the armband again for Wales for five years, with team captain Ryan Jones returning to the side for the final 2009 Championship match.
Sam Warburton took over as Wales captain in 2011 but Jones had already been made Ospreys captain at just 24, a position he held until the end of the 2017-18 season.
He added to his trophy cabinet with back-to-back Championship titles in 2012 — where he also won the Grand Slam — and 2013, featuring three times in each.
Jones led the British and Irish Lions in the final Australia Test in 2013 after Warburton’s hamstring injury, subsequently deputising in the opening game of the 2014 Championship.
He captained twice more that year in defeats to South Africa but was not appointed full-time until the 2017 Championship, with interim coach Robert Howley saying when appointing him, “Alun Wyn’s is the first name on the teamsheet.”
It was a decision head coach Gatland agreed with, retaining Jones as captain for the Autumn Internationals and the 2018 Championship, in which he played every minute of all but the penultimate game against Italy, where he was rested.
By that time he had broken the Ospreys’ record as the highest try-scoring forward and become only the seventh British and Irish Lions player to win Tests in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand while on tour.
READY FOR 2019
Wales experienced the perfect Autumn last November as they claimed four wins from four, with Jones leading them to historic victories over Scotland, Australia and South Africa.
It was the first time since 2002 they had won their first match of the Autumn since 2002, their first win against Australia since 2008 and their first ever Autumn clean sweep.
Jones was nominated for IRB International Player of the Year in 2015, only the third Welshman to make the shortlist.
He is Wales’ second-most capped international, with his 129 international appearances just five behind Gethin Jenkins’s record, with Jones set to move top of the list later this year.
But for the man who considered his 100th cap to be “just another game,” reaching that milestone is unlikely to satisfy the 33-year-old, especially in a World Cup year.
With Wales in tremendous form coming into the 2019 Championship and Jones hungry for success, he could be standing on the brink of the greatest year yet in his glittering career.