Following the surprise omission of Huw Jones from Scotland’s World Cup squad, overseas-based contributor JAMIE LYALL plots the rise and fall of the former Stormers centre.
If, as recently as 10 months ago, you were to speculate that Huw Jones would not make Scotland’s Rugby World Cup squad, that the exhilarating midfield rapier would be deemed surplus to requirements and left to watch the action in Japan from his Glasgow flat, you would have had strong cause for immediate psychiatric referral.
How thunderously Jones began life as an international centre and how dramatically his stock has plummeted over this past year.
To appreciate the scale of Jones’ fall, we must catalogue his riveting ascent. Two tries against the Wallabies on his first Test start in November 2016. Five more in his next eight internationals, including a double at Twickenham, one against the All Blacks, another against Australia, and a cute assist for the match-winning score against Argentina.
In the Calcutta Cup showdown of 2018 came his crowning glory, the barnstorming performance that cemented his status as Scottish rugby’s premier midfield strike runner. Jones went stampeding through flailing Englishmen like a runaway bison, legs thrusting, nostrils flaring, an irresistible force hauling Eddie Jones’ splintered chariot all the way to the try-line with him. Jones was devastating. Two tries and line break upon line break.
What price then on Gregor Townsend deeming him surplus to requirements come the showpiece in Japan less than 18 months later?
Those two rousing scores are Jones’ most recent in Test rugby. He has not crossed the line in his last nine Scotland matches. Injury and criticism have dogged him and others have made hay while he has been out of the game.
His defence too has taken a pasting, largely for the embarrassing ease with which George North then Jonathan Davies smithereened him en route to the whitewash in last year’s November Tests. Still, there have been moments of supreme class, reminders that few in Townsend’s midfield arsenal can conjure what Jones can, most notably in the two outrageous reverse passes that ultimately put Pete Horne coasting home against the Springboks.
But Jones’ appeal to Townsend has wilted. His impact at Glasgow Warriors has never come anywhere close to matching his seismic stuff in the Test arena. Perversely, he has been a much bigger player for country than club.
Since February, he has played 35 minutes for Glasgow – owing to a knee injury and the emergence of his rivals – and a Test-and-a-half in Scotland’s three warm-up matches. It wasn’t enough. Not when others like Duncan Taylor, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson and Pete Horne had found fitness and form in the most ferociously competitive area of Scotland’s squad.
‘Huw hasn’t had enough games playing well, or playing at all over the last few months,’ said Townsend, when pressed on his decision to do without Jones and Rory Hutchinson, another supreme attacking talent, at his squad unveiling.
‘He’s looked in unbelievable shape in training but we haven’t seen enough in the game-and-a-half he’s had with us to get himself into that final squad.’
It was telling that when talking about his four centres, Townsend spoke of his desire for ‘hard-working’ players with ‘strong defensive attributes’. The perception of Jones, rightly or wrongly, is that he can be a defensive weak link. The brutal truth is that Townsend couldn’t rely on him, big-game player or not, to sear back to his best form in Japan having struggled to deliver it for so long.
In leaving him and Hutchinson behind, Townsend has gambled on less spectacular options, placed his faith in dutiful soldiers rather than gun-toting mavericks. Johnson and Taylor are outstanding players and will form his first-choice partnership, but both have endured heinous luck with injuries. Losing either would leave Scotland without an awful lot of sparkle that they might come to need.
Every player has setbacks and this is an open sore that will fester while the fanfare and the hubbub of rugby’s greatest show explodes all around. Jones turned down a fat contract at Leicester Tigers in November in favour of a smaller offer from Glasgow, in part because staying in Scotland would help his international prospects.
He will be back with Glasgow soon, back with his old mate Oli Kebble and back in a Pro14 plundered by international call-ups. He has so much to offer and, you might imagine, one or two people he would dearly love to prove wrong. After a blistering rise, the measure of him now will be in how he handles the wounding fall.
Photo: World Rugby