A year-and-a-half ago centre Huw Jones had the world at his feet, and two despairing England defenders wrapped in vain around his ankles, as his stunning showing in a famous Calcutta Cup victory saw his already fast-burning star reach its zenith.
It was the high point of a stunning introduction to Test rugby and saw him race to a remarkable ten tries in 14 caps. A further seven appearances have been added, but no tries, as the Edinburgh-born, England-raised, South Africa-nurtured 25-year-old’s career has suffered a bit of a wobble. Injuries have been picked up and a move from Cape Town-based Western Province and Stormers to Glasgow Warriors in late 2017 has simply failed to take off, with a marked drop off in performance from country to club. A situation he says he is determined to reverse and make himself “undroppable”.
Jones fought back from his latest injury setback to regain fitness at the back end of last season but was simply not considered for selection in the latter stages of the Warriors’ run to the Guinness Pro14 final.
“Last season was pretty frustrating. I was in-and-out with Glasgow, and I had a couple of injuries,” said Jones at Scotland’s Oriam training base in Edinburgh.
“I went into the Six Nations thinking it was going to be a good chance to get a few games under my belt, then did my knee in the second game [against Ireland], which was pretty tough, and then I didn’t really play very much after that.
“So, I’d definitely say last season was frustrating. I’m a lot happier now in pre-season – I’m feeling fit again and the knee is fine. I’m just looking forward to these [World Cup warm-up] games and hopefully staying fit.”
Jones admitted the slump was tough to take after enjoying such a dream run, impressing in almost every appearance for Scotland since his first cap under Vern Cotter against Japan in Tokyo on the 2016 summer tour. He also ended his time in South Africa, where he had gone to study and became a professional rugby player almost by accident, with two tries in the Currie Cup final before making the move to Scotstoun.
“My career shot up from nothing really quickly and it was all going really well, and then a few injuries and having a bit of a tough time with Glasgow brought me back down to earth,” he continued. “But I think the experience has made me better as a player. It has been frustrating, but I’ve improved as a result.
“I’ve chatted to a few guys who have been through it. I couldn’t believe it but Hoggy [full-back Stuart Hogg] says that he missed out on selection a few times for Glasgow when he was younger, and Pete Horne has been through it all too, so it is good to get advice from them.”
Jones gives an honest answer when asked why he feels he found himself falling out of favour with Glasgow coach Dave Rennie, with the likes of Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg taking a grip on those midfield places.
“It was certain parts of [my game]. So, he [Rennie] wanted me to be more aggressive, basically, which isn’t in my nature. But I’m working on it – getting that intent, basically,” he explained.
“It was tough. From what he said to me, he does rate me, which is always nice to hear, but you’d obviously like to be picked.
“I suppose it is always tough to pick someone when they are coming back from injury or back from Scotland camp, when the guys who have been playing in that position have been going really well.
“ I understand that – I might not agree with it at times – but I think it is part of the process and one of my aims this season as long as I can stay fit is to become undroppable. That’s my aim as a player, that’s what I’d like to achieve. I’m not really sure [why it hasn’t clicked at Glasgow]. I think everyone’s got work-ons. Things they can improve in their game and I obviously need to improve as a player a bit more to command a spot in the team.”
There was a point last season when it seemed like Jones might cut his losses as he was strongly linked with a move to England with Leicester Tigers.
“I was pretty close [to moving there] yes. It was obviously a really nice offer basically. And yeah, I was close to going,” said Jones.
“The thing that kept me was probably the Scotland stuff. I’d spoken with [national coach] Gregor [Townsend] and [former SRU director of rugby] Scott Johnson, obviously he’s gone now. But with Scotland you get protected and plenty of rest. I probably get too much rest!
“It was good for the confidence. It shows that there is someone out there that rates me. I guess then getting a pretty good offer from Glasgow was good for the confidence also. It did show that I wasn’t unwanted but maybe that I had to do a bit more.”
When Jones made his Scotland debut over three years ago in the Japanese capital it must have been on his mind that returning there for the World Cup was going to be a driving ambition. When he was tearing England to pieces that day at BT Murrayfield in February 2018 he looked to be part of the handful inked in barring injury on the final squad sheet. He now knows that he has a fight ahead in the forthcoming warm-up series to make the plane, never mind the field for that pool opener against Ireland in Yokohama on 22 September.
“Back-row and centre is probably where there is most competition. It’s hard to split it up,” he said. “We’re all good players and there is no way of reading into anything we’ve done so far because it has basically been just small-sided games, but I think from this week onwards we might start getting an inkling [of what the coaches are thinking].
“There is obviously no Test match at the end of this week but it will be more rugby-based than conditioning-based going into next week when there is a Test match [against France in Nice a week on Saturday] at the end of it.”