Alun Wyn Jones’ place in Wales, Guinness Six Nations and world rugby folklore has long since been secure but this weekend sees the lock reach yet another milestone.
Jones currently stands level with All Blacks legend Richie McCaw on 148 caps – joint top of the all-time list – which means that when he faces Scotland on Super Saturday, the boy from Swansea will be out on his own with more international appearances than any other man in rugby history.
A remarkable 139 games for Wales and another nine for the British & Irish Lions, Jones has long been the lynchpin of his country’s success, and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Since making his international bow aged 20 against Argentina in 2006, the now 35-year-old has been a stalwart in the second row and while still performing miracles as captain of Wayne Pivac’s side, Jones is firmly on the lookout for further success, having won three Grand Slam titles as it stands in 57 Guinness Six Nations appearances.
Further accolades include amassing 21 appearances at four Rugby World Cups and being part of three Lions tours, while in 2017 he became one of only seven players to have beaten South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in each of the three major southern hemisphere nations.
Add to that multiple domestic Championship titles for club side Ospreys and suddenly it’s not too difficult to see why many consider Jones the greatest to have ever donned the Welsh red.
Indeed, Neil Jenkins – the first man to achieve 1,000 points in Test rugby – 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.”
With a combination of irrefutable leadership skills, exhaustive work rate, brilliant ball handling and controlled aggression, he is undoubtedly one of rugby’s biggest stars of the modern era.
MAKING THE GRADE
Born in Swansea, Jones got his first taste of rugby as a teenager at Bonymaen RFC and, as a quiet child but with towering height and huge desire, quickly made his mark.
Having progressed through the ranks at Swansea, and then Ospreys – and having helped the Wales U21 side to the 2005 Grand Slam – full international honours followed for Jones a year later, then as a flanker alongside Alix Popham, who could sense star quality immediately.
Popham said: “He had a confidence about him. Most youngsters in a squad will keep their heads down and just try to take on board as much as possible.
“But he was prepared to speak up. If he was not agreeing with a certain defensive drill or there was a problem with the lineouts, he would let the right people know about it.”
By 2007, Jones was an ever-present in Wales’ Six Nations side – starting all five games in the second row as a disappointing campaign saw them come fifth –before a World Cup call beckoned later that year.
Despite falling at the pool stage in France, the arrival of Warren Gatland at the helm of the national side sparked a return to success, with Jones making three appearances during the 2008 Grand Slam-winning series.
SECOND GRAND SLAM
While Wales were unable to defend their title in 2009, the Championship was particularly poignant for Jones, who became the team’s 129th captain when he led the side against Italy in Rome – the first of 37 times as it stands.
His dominant performances in the Wales pack earned Jones a maiden call-up to the 2009 Lions squad for the tour to South Africa, where he played in all three Tests as Ian McGeechan’s charges ultimately came unstuck 2-1.
Wales continued to struggle in the Six Nations in 2010, but back in Swansea Jones had multiple causes for celebration, graduating from Swansea University with a degree in law and capping off his latest domestic title by being named Ospreys club captain.
A run to the World Cup semi-finals followed in 2011 after a fourth-place finish in the Six Nations, but success wasn’t too far away.
Despite injury hampering his contribution at the start of the series, Jones returned to start Wales’ final three matches as Gatland’s men wrapped up their second Grand Slam in five years in 2012.
And a year later, Wales successfully defended their title, and though Jones’ contribution was again limited by injury, legendary winger Shane Williams was in no doubt of his value in the team.
Speaking after the Championship, he said: “He’s so committed to playing rugby – even if he broke his leg he’d still carry on playing. That’s the kind of person he is.
“He just wants to be on that field and he just wanted to be part of this Six Nations. He’s an incredible player, a future [Wales] captain [and] I think an outside dark horse for captain of the Lions.”
While Sam Warburton was ultimately selected as captain for the Lions’ tour to Australia in 2013, Gatland saw fit to make Jones skipper of his Lions team for the third and final Test against the Wallabies.
With Warburton injured, Jones’ fire and brimstone helped carry the Lions to a titanic Test win – ending a 16-year wait for a series victory.
By now, Jones had truly clicked as a player and a leader and it was Rob Howley who made Jones captain of Wales permanently in 2017 – while Gatland was on Lions sabbatical – and it appeared to take the lock to an even higher level.
That was proven when Jones capped his third Grand Slam by being crowned the 2019 Player of the Championship, having typically led from the front – whether it was inspiring a charge to victory or marshalling a defensive wall.
At full-time of Wales’s convincing 25-7 win over Ireland to seal the Slam, he said: “Anything can happen when you work hard and you’re a proud nation and we’ve shown that, and we like to think there’s still potential in us.”
THE LOVE OF A NATION
In the aftermath of that victory over Ireland, 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 freedom of Swansea soon followed for the Ospreys second row and now on the verge of becoming the most-capped man of all-time, there appears to still be more to come.
The record books are never enough to explain a player like Jones. He may not score many tries, none in his last 41 Tests and only nine in his 148-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 Jones’ 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, it is hardly a surprise that he’s on the verge of yet more history.