Scottish Rugby’s so called “project players” are well known, with WP Nel and Josh Strauss both helping Scotland come within a whisker of a World Cup semi-final last year. More are on the way, with Cornell du Preez available from September of this year so the Scotland squad is a multi-national entity these days and will become even more so if the SRU are successful in courting several overseas players.
Huw Jones, who boasts English, Scottish and Welsh heritage, plays Super Rugby in South Africa but was born in Edinburgh while his father Bill was teaching at George Watson’s primary school and coaching rugby.
When Huw was just two years old, the Jones family moved down south and Junior attended Millfield College where he played in the same team as current England stars Jonathan Joseph and Mako Vunapola. But Jones was never part of the academy system, mostly on account of his stature, or rather his lack of it. He played at scrum-half well into his teens and was considered too small for the English youth teams in his chosen position at centre.
Jones is currently playing for the Stormers in Cape Town and getting rave reviews while he is at it with a decent step and a genuine turn of pace: a genuine contender for the Scotland number 13 shirt even if national coach Vern Cotter is currently spoilt for choice with Duncan Taylor and Mark Bennett. Jones’ Stormer team-mates and rivals include twin Springboks Damian De Allende and Juan de Jongh, who are a pretty handy pair as mentors go.
“It’s definitely an option,” said Jones from South Africa when asked about throwing his lot in with Scotland.
“I am not ruling it out but right now I am in concentrating all my efforts on the Stormers and Super Rugby as you can imagine.
“My mum and dad both went to Edinburgh University and I was born in Edinburgh. I think my mum’s parents are Scottish and we lived there for a while after I was born while my dad was working at George Watson’s. We still have a lot of contacts up there.
“My contract with the Stormers ends the season after next but if I was to say that I wanted to continue my career in the northern hemisphere I don’t think they would stop me. I haven’t made any decision yet.”
It’s an interesting story with a moral at its heart: don’t write players off too early, because Jones did it the hard way.
In 2013 he moved to South Africa for one year to work as a “gappy” at Bishops Preparatory School and he has been in the country ever since. He played club rugby and helped the University of Cape Town win the Varsity Cup in 2014, at which point he appeared on the radar of SRU director of rugby Scott Johnson, inset. Johnson and Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend both contacted him expressing an interest and Jones even visited the Warriors’ Scotstoun headquarters around Christmas of 2014, although he obviously didn’t sign anything at the time.
Back in South Africa, Jones was selected for Western Province, first in the U20s squad and then for the full Vodacom Cup team, before he found himself playing Super Rugby for the Stormers last season and the club’s coach Robbie Fleck had this to say of the 22-year-old recruit.
“I have been massively impressed with him. Since 2009 I have been part of the set-up here and he is probably one of the best young centres who has come through the system.
“He is a quick learner, he has time on the ball which is his biggest attribute, he has got speed and strength, he can distribute the ball both ways and he can kick with both feet. In my opinion this kid is one for the future and a really special player in the making.”
On the basis that you can never have too much money, friends or competition for international places, Murrayfield are understandably keen that Jones returns to the land of his birth and they may be helped by the uncertain situation within the Republic.
South Africa’s currency, the rand, has dramatically weakened and the authorities are determination to promote “transformation” within rugby, the racial revolution in the professional game that aims to have black players making up half of all professional squads by 2019.
Whatever the merits of the policy, a lot of white boys are going to lose their jobs and the SRU are hoping to take advantage by signing another Stormer, 23-year-old prop Oliver Kebble, as a “project player”. Kebble won the junior World Championships with South Africa in 2012, beating New Zealand in the final, and he comes from good stock, father Guy was a Springbok in the mid 1990s.
Meanwhile, Jones is mulling his options while fending off at least four offers from English Aviva clubs, according to his agent.
Reading between the lines it is not impossible that the electric centre will be playing his rugby at Scotstoun next season.
After all the player boasts the same management team that looks after the interests of Nel and Strauss and, unlike the twin South Africans, if he swallows whatever bait Murrayfield dangles in front of his nose, at least Jones won’t have to twiddle his thumbs for three years playing while waiting to qualify for Scotland.