Cape Town – In an exclusive interview, Scotland and Stormers centre HUW JONES talks about signing for Glasgow Warriors, his British and Irish Lions aspirations and previews the contest in Christchurch on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You were born in Scotland, raised in England and honed your playing career in South Africa. How would you describe your rugby journey?
Huw Jones: It’s definitely been an interesting journey to reach the top of the professional game and I don’t think many people can say that they have the same back story. I never expected my career to work out this way but I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I have lived in South Africa for nearly five years now and cut my teeth playing for UCT in the Varsity Cup. It’s been a pleasure to play for Western Province and the Stormers and to debut for Scotland in 2016 was a dream come true. It’s really encouraging and humbling to have been described as one of the breakthrough players of the most recent Six Nations campaign. The tournament was really enjoyable from an individual and team perspective. It’s frustrating to have picked up a hamstring injury in our final fixture against Italy because I would have liked to have continued with the form I was showing. At the moment, the recovery window is four months until I’m playing again. The physiotherapists are doing their best to get me back on the field as soon as possible and I would love to don the Stormers jersey again before I continue my career abroad. Super Rugby concludes in August so the Stormers could potentially reach the final and I could turn out for them again this season. However, I won’t be holding my breath as injury recovery can prove unpredictable and I’m aware of the fact that it will be challenging to break into the first XV on account of the way my teammates are currently performing.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to pen a two-year deal with Glasgow Warriors?
Huw Jones: As I’m playing for the Scottish national team it made sense for me to play my rugby in Scotland moving forward. It will be tough to leave Cape Town because I love it here but I had made the decision to return to the United Kingdom even before I arrived in South Africa. WP Rugby tried to keep me but they are fine with my decision to further my career abroad. From day one, I have been clear in my communication with them and they have always known of my intentions to return home. Glasgow are doing very well this year and look like they could continue to achieve over the next couple of years. The chance to be part of a successful club was a big factor when I was making my decision. Playing professional rugby in the northern hemisphere for the first time will be a great challenge and I’m looking forward to linking up with New Zealand coaches Dave Rennie and Jason O’Halloran from the start of next season. I’ve worked with O’Halloran in his capacity as Scotland backline coach, so that is really encouraging and Rennie is one of the best coaches in the world. The PRO12 looks like an exciting championship with a host of strong teams. I’m relishing a new set of away fixtures as well as the opportunity to see more of Ireland, Wales and Italy on my travels. The game up north will be slightly different to what I have experienced in the south. There is more of an emphasis on set-piece and tactical kicking in the former hemisphere owing to less favourable weather conditions. However, from a flair point of view, Glasgow Warriors pretty much boasts the bulk of the Scotland backline, so there is an intent from us to attack and I won’t be looking to change my game.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of Warren Gatland’s 41-man British and Irish Lions squad?
Huw Jones: It’s the strongest British and Irish Lions squad I have ever seen selected and competition for places was hotly contested. There is strength in depth and all the players that have been picked are deserving of their places. However, it’s a shame that more Scottish players haven’t been chosen (only two Scots have been selected for the tour to New Zealand from June) because I agree with Jim Telfer who said Scotland have the most creative back division in northern hemisphere rugby. We attacked really well in the Six Nations and scored some cracking tries. I’m sad for my national teammates who didn’t make it but I’m absolutely delighted for Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour who have cracked the nod. Stuart is nailed on for a starting team berth in most people’s eyes, including mine, and Tommy is definitely deserving of his place even though he has not been spoken of by many people. For me, he is the standout winger in Europe at the moment. In terms of the centres that have been selected, I believe it’s a strong mix. Rob Howley has said that he is looking for pace, power and X-factor and, in the midfielders they have selected, that is exactly what they will get. On a personal front, missing out on this year’s tour gives me more motivation to aim for the next Lions tour which will take place in South Africa in 2021. I see it as a four-year plan and if I continue to produce consistent performances for Scotland, I hope to impress the British and Irish Lions selectors.
Sport24 asked: Dillyn Leyds has been in fine fettle. Is he deserving of a national call-up?
Huw Jones: Definitely. If Dillyn isn’t a Springbok by the end of this year then I will eat my hat. For me, he has to be in the national squad because out of all the back-three players in South Africa at the moment, he is the one who has shown the best form during Super Rugby. There are naturally players who’ve already earned Springbok caps that will definitely be in the mix come the June Test series against France, but on form alone Dillyn has to be included in the Springbok squad. I would like to see Allister Coetzee bring more of an attacking game to the Springboks because he has players like Leyds at his disposal. If the Boks show more attacking intent this year it will be really encouraging. If you look at the abundance of talent in South African rugby there is no reason the Springboks should be struggling. Coetzee will definitely be taking note of the way the Stormers are playing and the personnel who are putting their hands up. Last year, Coetzee clearly took heed of what the Lions did because he picked a plethora of Lions players and this June I foresee a number of Stormers players being part of the national team fold due to a consistent run of Super Rugby results.
Sport24 asked: Which home-based players are potential Springbok skippers in the making?
Huw Jones: Siya Kolisi and Warren Whiteley have put their hands up for the Springbok captaincy this season and Eben Etzebeth is growing into his role as Stormers vice-captain. However, I believe too much pressure is often placed on one man. The Springboks will need to put a leadership group together because it will drive the team forward. At the Stormers, we have a core group of leaders who are always on the same page and they are crucial in driving training sessions and team meetings. It’s refreshing for players to hear from other players and not just the coaches all of the time. It’s been massive for us and it would definitely be good for the Springboks if they followed suit.
Sport24 asked: What other factors have informed the Stormers’ success this season?
Huw Jones: There are a number of factors that have contributed to our success so far this campaign and it all started in the pre-season. The pre-season was different to anything that we have done before. We trained at a different level of intensity and placed an emphasis on honing our skills with new assistant coach Paul Feeney at the helm. Much of the training we do can be termed ‘chaos training’ because literally anything goes. It’s not about playing beautiful structure but rather about feeding of each other and operating instinctively. When you have a New Zealand coach who knows what he’s talking about telling you what you need to do, you listen. The skill level has always been there but it’s about refining our skills and honing them in a game environment. In terms of Dillyn’s offload against the Chiefs not many players would have been brave enough to try that. But he was and it worked on that occasion. Paul has proved the catalyst in us improving our skills and backing our instincts, but Robbie Fleck must be credited for implementing the plan and getting him involved.
Sport24 asked: What are your expectations for the Stormers’ tour of New Zealand?
Huw Jones: The fact that many people aren’t giving the Stormers a chance on their antipodean tour will definitely spur my teammates on and they will want to prove a point. People said we would take another 60-pointer against the Chiefs but the team turned up and showed what we can do. Granted, it will be much tougher playing away from home. We won’t have the crowd support in our favour but I can tell you that we are up for it. I’m backing the boys to be competitive and get the results because I know how well we can play when we are firing on all cylinders. In terms of team objectives, two wins on tour will constitute a successful sojourn and three victories would be unbelievable. We are under no illusions that New Zealand is a tough place to tour but beating the Chiefs this season has shown how far we have come since we were smashed by the same opponents last season. We face quality opposition in the form of the Crusaders on Saturday to kick off our tour. The Crusaders haven’t been one of the strongest New Zealand teams in the last couple of years but are in a rich vein of form and boast a long list of All Blacks on their team sheet. In order to prove successful we need to make the correct decisions under intense pressure and play in the right areas of the field. The Crusaders, and all New Zealand teams for that matter, are deadly from turn-over ball. As such, we need to keep hold of ball possession and endeavour to play the game on our terms.
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