Despite a name that is redolent of the Valleys, Murrayfield’s latest centre-stage star confirms he’s Scottish through and through, telling Iain Morrison he’s never had any links with Wales
The question was coming on right down the track with all the predictability of the Chattanooga Choo Choo and Huw Jones knew it as well as every journalist sitting in on the interview with the Scotland’s centre last week.
“So how do you feel playing against a Welsh team that, in different circumstances, you might have been playing for?” asked the reporter.
“I’ve never been able to qualify for Wales, despite my name,” Jones replied, strangling that line of questioning at birth, although his father’s side of the family did originate in the principality. “Someone asked me about it at school because Millfield is fairly close but I wouldn’t have qualified.”
He could be English or Scottish or, had he hung around Cape Town a little longer, possibly even South African but Jones hung a Saltire above his bed from an early age after touring the land of his birth as a kid and he has become part of the fixtures and fittings of this Scotland squad in less time than it takes to learn Flower of Scotland.
It is easy to see why. He is quick, skilful and a relentlessly upbeat sort of character. His offload out the back of his hand set up a try for Sean Maitland against Argentina last November and his offload in traffic gave Stuart Hogg a simple score against France last weekend. Jones is one of those players who make things happen and last week it was confirmed that he had swapped South Africa for the west of Scotland. Moreover he is bringing a friend, the 6’3”, 20-stone prop Oli Kebble, whose father Guy turned out for the Springboks a generation ago.
One generation back, world-class players would rather have supped Babycham than swap Newlands for Scotstoun but it is testament to the improved standing of Scotland within world rugby that Jones and Kebble are prepared, perhaps even eager, to make the move.
“I’ll miss the weather,” said Jones when asked. “I’ll definitely miss Cape Town, it’s a wonderful city. I don’t think I’ll miss the amount of travel [in Super Rugby], that takes its toll. At the same time, it’s really cool to be able to go to some of those places. I’m looking forward to the new challenge. I don’t think there’s anything that’s a lot better with Super Rugby, so it will be nice to come up here and play different teams.”
He continued: “It was the national team interest. When I was looking at coming up to Scotland I was only on three caps. I’d rather play in Scotland, be in and around the camp all the time… that helps.”
Jones confessed that he had not yet spoken to Dave Rennie, the Super Rugby winning coach who will take over from Gregor Townsend next season, but Scotstoun’s artificial surface should suit his footwork and the fact that he will be rubbing shoulders with several members of the Scotland team also swayed his thinking.
“That was a big factor,” he agreed. “I’ve been playing with the majority of the Glasgow backline. Making the choice, it was easy to make when weighing up the options, who I want to play with? This is pretty much the Scotland backline!”
Jones suggests that he and Kebble, who share a flat in Cape Town, egged each other on to make the move.
“We came as a package deal! I may have persuaded him a little bit, and he might have persuaded me as well.”
There is little doubt that Kebble looks like a canny signing by Rennie. The South African is a loosehead by trade but has the priceless ability to hold up either side of the scrum. With Gordon Reid leaving the club, Glasgow needed to import replacement beef and in Kebble they have someone who was highly regarded in his own homeland and, at 24, his best years are all ahead of him.
The two flat-mates will miss the Warriors’ pre-season – they might not arrive in Scotland until the end of October, depending on how Western Province fare in the Currie Cup. This falls after the May date of World Rugby’s vote on the three-year residency rule so, depending on how the vote goes, Kebble may have to work his passage for five years before becoming eligible for Scotland – when they could really use him in six days time.
All focus is fixed on next weekend and Wales who have surprised on the upside. They beat Italy with something to spare and should have closed out the game against England and, but for one loose kick from the boot of Jon Davies, probably would have done.
Wales have lost just two Six Nations’ ties in Scotland, the last defeat coming a decade ago, so they will arrive at Murrayfield confident of extending that winning streak.
Jones highlights the physicality that Wales boast across their back line with the likes of George North, Davies and Scott Williams and he talked about the improvements Scotland could make from their opening two games, playing in the right part of the field and tightening up on the ill-discipline that saw them concede 13 penalties in Paris; several of which emanated from the set scrum.
While insisting that Super Rugby is a lot faster and a little more skilled, the centre concedes that the sheer intensity of the collisions in the Six Nations is definitely a step up from his Stormers’ experience.
“They can be a good attacking team so we’ve got to be wary of that,” said Jones, who is probably a better player with the ball in hand himself. “They’re a big side, similar to France, so they might come out and try to bully us like France did. We’ll have to have a good look at them and formulate a plan.”
And whatever the plan is, it will surely feature the Edinburgh born Scot with the Welsh name at its heart.