Adam Jones still winces at the memory. It was the 31st minute of the first Test against South Africa last summer when the Wales replacements board went up with No 3 on it. Everyone assumed that Jones was injured. He wasn’t, which is why every step to the sideline was filled with utmost shame.
Jones had been in this scenario before. When he first broke through into the team at the 2003 World Cup, Steve Hansen, now coach of New Zealand, used to regularly substitute him before half-time, citing fitness concerns, which led to the unenviable label “the 30-minute man”.
Jones resented Hansen’s tactic, but it was still understandable. Just two years previously, Jones had been enjoying the social side of amateur rugby while making paving slabs for a living.
Last summer was very different. In the intervening decade, Jones had established himself among the world’s foremost and, thanks to his tassels of brown curls, distinctive tighthead props. He is one of only six Welshmen in the post-war era to win three Grand Slams and was the anchor upon which the Lions claimed their first series victory in 16 years against Australia in 2013. This was to be his 100th cap – including five for the Lions – and a day for celebration that swiftly turned to humiliation.
Suddenly, he was back to being the 22-year-old whose confidence was destroyed by Hansen. Admittedly, he was not enjoying his finest game, but then neither were many of his team-mates after conceding three tries in 20 minutes. Jannie du Plessis had just sliced through a gap between Jones and Mike Phillips, the scrum-half, when the board went up.
“At first, it was disbelief, then shock and then just overwhelming disappointment,” Jones said. “It killed me on the inside. At half-time, I just buried my head in a towel. It took me back 10 years to when I first got subbed. I was hoping that nothing like that would ever happen to me again. It was a kick in the nuts to be honest.”
Jones repeats that expression several more times to describe the events of the past six months. He was dropped completely for the second South Africa Test, left in limbo by the dispute between the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union and excluded from the Wales squad for the November internationals.
Yet the seeds of his demise came soon after his greatest hour, the third Lions Test in Sydney. The partying had barely subsided when it was time to return for pre-season. Jones had two weeks off in total, meaning it was a matter of time before his body broke down, which it did when he strained his calf in November.
In the meantime, the landscape of scrummaging had changed significantly since the engagement sequence was changed from “Crouch, touch, pause, engage” to “crouch, bind, set”. The explosive force that he used to generate on the “engage” call was gone, replaced by more of a static, pushing contest. An old prop was forced to learn new tricks.
“If you look at the props who have played over the past 10 years, they are in a similar boat – people like [Martin] Castrogiovanni, [Carl] Hayman, [Nicolas] Mas – none of those guys have been as dominant as they have been over the past decade or so,” he said. “It is a different way of doing things that we are getting used to.
“There’s never consistency. I have never played a game where referees have wanted the same thing every week. A technically good prop now is not as important as a really strong prop. If someone is really good in the gym then they might get away with not being technically great. Technique has gone out of the window a bit, which I feel is a shame.”
Also bubbling under the surface was the dispute between the union and the regions in which the players were mere pawns. Jones was an Ospreys original since 2003, yet when he returned from the Lions tour, he found himself unemployed. The Ospreys would not offer a new contract until a participation agreement with the WRU was agreed.
Weeks ticked by with Jones training by himself – “not ideal” – with a couple of sessions at Neath, his first club. Then on Aug 19, he signed for Cardiff Blues.
“I had always been an Ospreys boy and I waited, waited and waited for them to offer me something,” Jones said. “I held out but then it comes to mid-August and pre-season was nearly over. After two months in the wilderness and a pretty bad tour to South Africa, to have something solid and concrete in front of me was a hell of a weight off my shoulders for me and my family.”
Without the benefit of a full pre-season, Jones started the season slowly but was still unprepared for the complete jettisoning from Wales’s autumn international squad. “It was a massive shock, another kick in the nuts,” Jones said.
Warren Gatland referenced the new engagement laws as well as Jones’s mobility. There is no bitterness towards Gatland, particularly as Jones harbours ambition to coach one day, just a determination to prove him wrong.
“I am never going to be like a Gethin [Jenkins], but what I have always hung my hat on as a front-row forward has been my scrummaging,” Jones said. “I thought I had done what they had usually asked for. That’s what was disappointing. I am not going to lie, probably, a couple of times, I asked myself whether I should sack it and knock it on the head, but then I thought it is a big year and a goal at the end of it.”
Retirement can wait, particularly as Samson Lee and Rhodri Jones, the young Scarlets props who were promoted ahead of Jones, both have injury concerns. It opens the door for Jones to reprise the role he filled against England in the 2013 Six Nations decider when he milked Joe Marler and then Mako Vunipola for six penalties, even if he is keen to downplay his influence.
“It looked a lot better than it actually was, a lot of it was interruption from the referee,” Jones said. “The scrum has also changed a lot since then.”
Playing at a fourth World Cup is another big goal, but more than anything, Jones wants the opportunity to erase the memory of his last Wales appearance.
“I don’t want to go out like that and I am confident I have what it takes to get back in. I am feeling a lot better in myself now. The last year or so has been tough, really tough, but it has made me stronger and hungrier to pull on that red shirt again.”