Rugby matters

Alun Wyn Jones: From Bonymaen juniors to British and Irish Lions

It all started on 11 June, 2006 in Argentina. Quite fittingly it was in Puerto Madryn, located in the Welsh-speaking area of Patagonia.

A fresh-faced Alun Wyn Jones packed down at blindside flanker in his first Wales international, which the Pumas won 27-25.

This was a quiet start to a glittering career that will see Jones run out on Saturday at Parc y Scarlets behind closed doors to become the most capped player in international rugby, having drawn level with Richie McCaw’s previous record of 148 in France last weekend.

It will be his 140th appearance for Wales to go alongside nine British and Irish Lions Tests over three tours of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

His illustrious CV includes three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles, two World Cup semi-finals and captaining the Lions as they beat the Wallabies in the 2013 series decider.

BBC Sport Wales charts the path of the Swansea schoolboy who has risen to secure modern rugby legend status.

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw tackles Alun Wyn Jones in November 2006
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw tackles Alun Wyn Jones in November 2006

The coaches

First junior club, Bonymaen RFC, Kevin Brooks:

“I saw a young lad when he was playing for Oystermouth Primary School, who were playing my local school where my lad was. When he ran on to the pitch I thought he was the referee.

“He was a giant among these kids of 10 years of age and I feared for everybody on the pitch.

“A couple of years later when they went to Bishop Gore comprehensive school, he came to Bonymaen to play.

“What an asset he was, and when he walked into the changing room he cast a shadow on the floor.

“He was very quiet, polite and gentle as the big lads often are at that age. At that first training session the boys were afraid to tackle him.

“He was phenomenal and led from the front. I don’t think he was ever captain of any junior teams, but he was always there to listen and give advice. It was a great time.

“I just wish now we had taken more photos. We did not know at the time we were coaching someone who would go on to become the most capped player in international rugby!

“It was something when he first rolled into the changing room with his father Tim on that first night and to now comprehend what he has done in the game is unbelievable. Nobody could have predicted what would happen.

“He came to us from Mumbles, the other side of Swansea.

Bonymaen RFC
Alun Wyn Jones (far left) in his Bonymaen days

“There is a big east-west divide in most cities and especially Swansea and we always feel like we are the poor relations of the city.

“Bonymaen is not the most pleasant experience on a wet Wednesday night in the middle of November when the wind is cutting you in half.

“Bonymaen is a tough place. It had a bit of a reputation as a bad place, unfounded in my eyes.

“When a young lad like Alun came across the bridge to come into the special micro-climate here, it spoke volumes.

“We were fortunate his mother Ann was a teacher in the local comprehensive school which neighbours the rugby club.

“He came up here and hit the ground running and had a point to prove against the Mumbles rugby club where he had friends, which added spice.

“Loyalty is something important to Alun Wyn and he has never forgotten his roots.

“And in 2013 on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, other than watching my sons play rugby, he provided one of the greatest moments of my rugby life.

“I was fortunate to be there in the ground in Sydney on the night when he captained the Lions to that memorable third Test series win.

“I had made a Welsh flag with the Bonymaen badge and name written on it. It has travelled with us on the Lions trips to New Zealand and South Africa in 2005 and 2009 and was with us in Australia.

“In the Olympic stadium in Sydney the Lions players were walking around the pitch after the match doing a traditional lap of honour and thanking the crowd. Alun Wyn spotted me and saw the flag and gestured if he could have it. Without hesitation I threw it to him and he wrapped it around himself and poetically walked off into the Sydney floodlights.

“That was something else. I thought he would get in the changing room, put the flag in the corner and it would be a fitting finale.

“Some months later he phoned me and asked if I wanted the flag back. He had taken the time to put it back in his kit bag and travel 12,000 miles with it. What a guy to do that. I was overwhelmed with the gesture and still have the flag upstairs.

“I will be looking at it and thinking of Alun Wyn when he runs out to break the world record.”

Alun Wyn Jones
Alun Wyn Jones with a Welsh flag after the 2013 Lions success in Sydney

First senior club, Swansea RFC, Tony Clement:

“When I met Alun Wyn first he was in Llandovery College and I was coaching and on the staff at the Ospreys. The first thing that struck me was that he was a very personable guy.

“My early memories on the field are that he was a sponge, keen to take on as much information, but also maybe go outside the spectrum of his playing position and try and be adept all over the park.

“I only worked closely with him for a couple of years, but it was the appetite to improve his skillset beyond his position that stood out.

“He was also keen to stay on after the session and do additional personal skill work. While we had a tight-knit squad, Alun Wyn was destined to move onto greater things quickly.

“If you are good enough you are old enough. When I was coaching Alun Wyn it was in the Premiership with Swansea and it was a new system, a tier underneath the regional game, which he came into.

“It is fair to say there were different agendas within different sides at that point, but Alun Wyn was an intelligent athlete who was also capable of going toe-to-toe with more experienced, older locks.

“You just could not leave him out. He was attracting attention at a young age.”

First region, Ospreys, Lyn Jones:

Alun Wyn Jones has been part of four Ospreys league winning sides including captaining the team to 2012 success
Alun Wyn Jones has been part of four Ospreys league-winning sides, and captained them to 2012 success

“My first memories of him were as a 17-year-old. He looked like a future star walking towards me with white boots on. At the time coloured togs were all the rage. That’s where the nickname came from: ‘Alun Wyn Boots’.

“Academy manager Gethin Watts brought Alun Wyn over at the end of one of our sessions and said this guy is going to be a future star and a Lions captain.

“How many times have we heard that in the past? But fair play Gethin was spot on.

“What I liked about Al was his total enthusiasm and desire to be the best. That came through as an 18-year-old, let alone a 35-year-old.

“When he came in at first he had lots of promise, but did not initially fulfil it at the start of 2005. I had to send him back to Swansea for four or five months to play more rugby.

“His positioning outside of set-piece was not very good and some of his tackling was not great.

“Every Monday at 8.30am, Alun would be there with the Swansea laptop asking me to look at footage and see how he was doing.

“I was busy, but this guy had time to come here so I had to give him time and feedback. We used to sit around for half an hour and gradually he got better.

“For Alun to achieve this record, you have to be so determined. You have to fight off the competition, stay injury-free and fit and be valuable to the coach and team.

Lyn Jones (right) celebrating a Magners League title in 2007 with Sean Holley and James Hook
Lyn Jones (right) celebrating a Magners League title in 2007 with Sean Holley and James Hook

“He has run fast and non-stop in every single game and training session he has played.

“When he was a fringe player we had a big European game coming up so we had our eight forwards against three or four young boys, one of whom was Alun.

“He was fighting the whole Ospreys pack and it did not end well for him, resulting in him having a nasty neck injury and an ambulance coming to take him away.

“He did not know when to stop. He is a great example of how to be a professional rugby player. The most capped international professional in history.”

Gareth Jenkins (left) and Nigel Davies at the 2007 World Cup
Gareth Jenkins (left) and Nigel Davies at the 2007 World Cup

First Wales coach, Gareth Jenkins:

“I first saw him play on a couple of occasions for Llandovery College. He was a big lump of a boy, a bit overweight in fact.

“I then watched him play for the Wales Under-21s and he had changed physically by then from being quite a plump boy to a leaner player of stature. He has always been a big man and you could see this guy evolving and developing.

“I knew he was in the Ospreys set-up and I spoke to Lyn Jones. We were both convinced he had all the ingredients to become a serious international player. The process of playing for Swansea was exactly what he needed at the time.

“When he got back into the Ospreys set-up, he started impressing everybody.

“I had been appointed national coach six weeks before the tour and it was a year before the 2007 World Cup, so I made a decision to leave about 16 or 17 current internationals at home to do a summer camp and take a younger generation of players to expose them and have a couple of weeks living with them, to see the other side of the player off the field.

Alun Wyn Jones on his debut against Argentina in 2006
Alun Wyn Jones on his debut against Argentina in 2006

“Alun was one of them but so was Ian Evans, who was also in the Ospreys set-up, so I thought it was a great opportunity to take the two. It was not an easy balance because I could not put two young locks together against Argentina so Ian Gough was picked alongside Ian Evans and I picked Alun Wyn for the two internationals in the back row to start his journey.

“The tour was a huge step – he had not played more than a dozen games for his region. He was a very single-minded young man and driven even then.

“He is unique and can be compared to the great second rows of all time starting back as far as Willie John McBride. He was a leader of men and his reputation was infamous. Then Martin Johnson is an icon of English rugby and Paul O’Connell arrives.

“I would put Alun Wyn Jones in that category and I think he has superseded them with his record. I think he is the greatest ever second row and stands out in the category as the greatest Welsh player.”

Warren Gatland hails Alun Wyn Jones as one of the greatest players ever

First British and Irish Lions coach, Ian McGeechan:

“We picked Alun Wyn for the 2009 tour of South Africa and I soon realised what a brilliant, committed trainer he was with a great attitude, even as a relative youngster amongst other more experienced players.

“He got picked to start the first Test match in Durban and we then used him as a replacement for the next two games after Simon Shaw came in when we needed a bit more bulk in the engine room.

“It was no surprise to see him evolve as a player. Fellas like Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell and Martin Johnson are a special breed. I would put him in that bracket.

“The Lions Tests are tremendously physical and the 2009 series, people still talk about that being the most physical ever and rugby has only got stronger.

“Alun was always a natural leader even when he was not captain and that’s where he, Martin and Paul have that presence.

“They don’t normally say a lot but when they do everybody listens.

2009 British and Irish Lions tour Sir Ian McGeechan with his coaching staff Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Warren Gatland
2009 British and Irish Lions tour Sir Ian McGeechan with his coaching staff Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Warren Gatland

“All three set a fantastic example on the field about what was needed to win games. You don’t win three Grand Slams very easily and Gats [Warren Gatland[ knew what he had there.

“Most top-class captains have somebody alongside them driving people in a different way and when Sam Warburton was captain, he had somebody like Alun Wyn in the centre of everything. He has that presence on other players in the group.

“To play in nine Lions Tests in three series over eight years is incredible and the fact he has done it from lock is even more impressive.

“His world caps record will include nine Lions Tests. They are Test matches and some of the toughest you will ever play.

Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton celebrate Lions success
Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton celebrate Lions success in Australia in 2013

“People will talk about a Lions Test and World Cup final in the same breath and that’s the calibre and quality.

“In the eyes of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, this is a special set of Test matches which are the biggest matches they can play in and only come around every 12 years.

“So you are playing the best players in the world who are highly motivated opponents, but respect the Lions as well.

“If he is playing well into 2021 he could be looking at 12 Lions caps.”

Original source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/54674520

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