All eyes on Alun-Wyn
August 24, 2010
Is ALun-Wyn Jones a future Wales captain? © Getty Images
Captaincy is, and we have Martin Johnson's word for it, overrated. He should know - and given that his record as captain still constitutes his main credential for his present employment, his opinion is hardly self-interested.
Certainly the appointed leader does not have anything like the same importance as in cricket, where a fielding captain has to take every decision for his team during sessions lasting two hours. But, while he operates increasingly in subordination to the coach - an ascendancy clinched when rugby permitted tactical substitutions - the rugby captain still matters more than, say, his footballing counterpart.
It is not always easy to predict who will get the job. Johnson himself might have gone down in history as nothing more than an exceptional lock forward had Lawrence Dallaglio not stumbled into a tabloid sting operation. John Gwilliam, the only man to lead Wales to victory at Twickenham twice, seems in retrospect to have been made for captaincy, but only got the job because of Bleddyn Williams's mid-career injury jinx. Did anybody in their wildest dreams visualise Gareth Thomas captaining the British & Irish Lions?
There are some, though, that you can see coming a fair way off. The appointment of Alun-Wyn Jones as captain of the Ospreys comes into this category, and there seems every chance that it is a step on the way towards the leadership of Wales, and possibly the Lions. He's been my long-term guess as captain in Australia in 2013 since some time before last year's tour of South Africa.
One element in this is the predilection of Lions selectors for lock forwards, although this may be seen as less of a necessity than in South Africa. The others are those which underpin his ascent at every other level. He has been, assuming fitness, pretty much a nailed on selection for Wales since making his debut - an all-round second-row with some of the ball handling skills of a back-rower.
He's smart, having chosen to devote what spare time he has over the last few seasons to completing his law degree at Swansea University. He's highly articulate. While the ability to turn a neat speech is no longer as highly valued as it once was - tours are shorter and banquets less pervasive than they were - it remains essential that you communicate effectively with team-mates and, less important but still hardly insignificant, the media.
He was considered when Ryan Jones got the Wales job. But he was still only 22 and, while he evidently handled the parallel demands of study and international rugby very well, throwing in the responsibilities of captaincy might have been a little too much.
None of which is to say that he should yet succeed Ryan Jones as Wales captain. There's much to be said for allowing Ryan to concentrate on recapturing his best form without having to worry about wider issues in a season where the Ospreys must hope to make a real European breakthrough.
Assuming he can maintain his place on his merits as a player, there would be no reason for Warren Gatland to discard him this side of the World Cup. But Gatland will surely be happy to have an heir apparent gaining week-by-week experience of the demands and decision-making pressures of captaincy. Should Ryan lose form or get injured, Alun-Wyn will be much more qualified for the role by virtue of his experience with the Ospreys.
The appointment also appears to come at a good time personally. He has just graduated, freeing up time and mental energy. The last year has brought some adversity. He was criticised rather unfairly for failing to turn his interception against the All Blacks into a potentially match-drawing try and, with a little more justice, for the midfield trip and subsequent sin-binning that contributed to Wales's defeat at Twickenham.
It was certainly ill-judged, but hardly the sole or even the main reason - Wales played poorly all round - for losing. Then he got injured and when did he return found himself, for the first time since late 2006, making his entry from the bench. The emergence of Bradley Davies means that for the first time he has a partner of comparable quality, but also that he has a rival as Wales's best lock, raising the possibility that he might be the one who gives way when different qualities are called for.
Very little can be counted on. Injury, loss of form or coaching changes can throw all calculations. But you can think about the future, and give the players you hope and expect to play an important part in it the best chance to develop the skills and experience that will help them. On that basis this week's announcement by the Ospreys looks like good news for Wales.