This is the story of an Englishman with a Welsh name who is starting for Scotland in the Six Nations opener against Ireland. There must be a joke in there somewhere. If you are finding it difficult to take in you are in good company because Huw Jones is also struggling to wrap his head around his rise in the rugby ranks that could be termed meteoric if only meteors moved at the same pace as this fleet-footed outside centre.
The Scotland thirteen only qualifies through luck. His dad was working as a teacher at George Watsons college so junior was born in Edinburgh and this Scot, like one or two others, has an accent that is tinged with a Cape Town twang. The family moved to England when he was two and he later attended the famous Millfield School, playing alongside England’s Jonathan Joseph in what must have been a handy enough midfield partnership.
His pal signed professional forms and went onto great things, Jones went to South Africa and worked as a “gappy” at a prep school. At the time he was deemed too small by the Aviva academies in England and so he took a sabbatical in the republic. He played for Cape Town University and sufficiently impressed in helping them lift the varsity championship that Western Province came calling after which the Stormers picked him for Super Rugby duty… and so, too, did Scotland who had duly noted his place of birth.
“It is quite hard to believe,” says Jones when asked about his circuitous route into the Six Nations. “Obviously I always wanted to play rugby. I didn’t go there [South Africa] because I was giving up on rugby. I obviously played rugby while I was out there for club sides and university sides, but yeah, it has been quite a journey and I never thought it would happens so quickly.”
This is Jones’ first start in the Six Nations but he has already made quite a splash in his opening three appearances in Scotland colours. His Test debut came in Tokyo on the summer tour when he was hauled off he bench, as much to tie him to Scotland as anything else you suspect, late in a game where Scotland flopped over the finish line. But the Stormer lit up the autumn series, scoring a brace of tries against Australia on his Murrayfield debut and following that up by creating a score for Sean Maitland against Argentine the following week.
Oddly enough that was the last match he has played… two and a bit months ago. He was injured against the Pumas and has spent the time in between rehabing his troublesome foot. He then caught a slice of the Stormers’ pre season conditioning sessions but still had to prove to Vern Cotter that he was both ready and able to handle the rigours of international rugby.
“I have had to do a fair bit of extra fitness to fully prove that I could cope with a game. I obviously passed that,” he said.
“I think I lacked a bit of sharpness maybe but I think I have brought that up over the last two weeks and I feel confident I have brought that back to where it was in the autumn.”
Plying his trade in South Africa Jones might have hoped to fly under the Irish radar but no less an authority than Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has already fingered the Scot as one to watch in this tournament.
Now Scotland’s adopted son finds himself going head to head with Garry Ringrose, Ireland’s long term replacement for Brian O’Driscoll in the No 13 shirt, another Six Nations debutant, thanks largely to Jared Payne being injured, who is one year younger than the 23-year-old Scot. Much is expected of the two opposing centres and Jones for one has done his homework.
“I have looked at his clips and that of the Irish team as a whole and I have chatted to some of the guys who have played against him in the Pro12 and the Champions Cup,” Jones said of his opposite number. “Analysis is an important part of the game. He [Ringrose] is a good young player and has a lot of pace and seems to be a good attacker.”
And you could say exactly the same for the Scot, who showcased his speed against Australia with a text book outside break before high stepping his way out of a despairing Wallaby tackle. Scotland fans will settle for a repeat performance tomorrow because the Irish defence, with the bulk of the squad culled from the ranks of Leinster and Munster, are meaner that Scrooge McDuck.
The fact that Scotland are fielding someone who the opposition have never faced must be in their favour, especially if backs coach Jason O’Halloran and/or Finn Russell can get the newbie into the action early which is exactly what happened against Australia. Russell’s chip kick bounced kindly for Jones and the centre had scored within eight minutes of setting foot on Murrayfield’s turf!
For his part Jones has not banged his head against Munster’s red brick wall like so many at Glasgow Warriors have done this season and for so little return, although the centre doesn’t mind admitting to some nerves ahead of the biggest game of his life to date.
“It’s big,” he says. “I grew up watching the Six Nations and it’s the biggest competition in Europe. I’m slightly nervous going into the first game but very excited. You can tell there a bit of nerves and a bit of excitement and that’s always a good thing.
“Since the autumn internationals the expectations have gone up, but that’s nice for us. It shows that people have confidence in us and back us. It’s just another challenge.
“This time around is different, we have been building momentum for some time now and I think the squad we have is exciting. I believe we can go on and do some great things.”