IT was less than 18 months ago that Huw Jones was blasting through Englishmen like they were skittles in a bowling alley on his way to scoring a Calcutta Cup clinching brace of tries at Murrayfield during the 2018 Six Nations. Having crossed the line ten times during in his first 14 appearances for Scotland, he was, at that stage, well established as one of the most exciting and dangerous attacking midfielders in European rugby.
Astonishing then that from such an exalted position, the 25-year-old centre is now in the scrap if his line to secure a place in Gregor Townsend’s 31-man squad which will fly out to the World Cup next month.
A couple of badly timed injuries and a dip in form last season has coincided with the emergence of Sam Johnson, Rory Hutchinson and Kyle Steyn as serious contenders in the centre, and with Peter Horne offering experience and versatility, plus Duncan Taylor now fit again and looking good in training by all accounts, there is going to be an almighty battle amongst the midfielders for a seat on that plane to Japan.
With Scotland’s first warm-up match now just over a week away, things are about to get interesting.
“Back-row and centre are the two positions where there is probably most competition,” agrees Jones. “It’s hard to split it up. We’re all good players and there is no way of reading into anything we have done so far because it has basically been just small-sided games.
“But I think from this week onwards we might start getting an inkling [of what the coaches are thinking]. There is obviously no Test match at the end of this week, but it will be more rugby-based than conditioning-based going into next week when there is a Test match at the end of it.”
Taking it on the chin
It is to Jones’ credit that he doesn’t try to duck the issue of his lack of form for Glasgow Warriors since joining the Scotstoun outfit in November 2017, which has led to Dave Rennie tending to choose his midfield combination from Johnson, Horne, Steyn, Nick Grigg and Stafford McDowall for the matches that really matter.
A less level-headed character may very well have thrown his toys out the pram, and been tempted to head off to Welford Road when Leicester Tigers put an appetising offer on the table midway through last season – but Jones chose to re-commit to Glasgow for two more years and says he is determined to use the tough love he has experienced from Rennie as a building block to becoming a better player.
“It was obviously a really nice offer [from Leicester] and, yeah, I was close to going, but the thing that kept me here was probably the Scotland stuff,” he explains. “You get protected and plenty of rest – I probably get too much rest!
“But it was good for the confidence. It shows that there is someone out there who rates me. I guess then getting a pretty nice offer from Glasgow was good for the confidence also. It did show that I wasn’t unwanted but maybe that I had to do a bit more.”
Fronting up in defence
The key problem with Jones as far as Rennie has been concerned relates to his defensive work. “He wanted me to be more aggressive, basically, which isn’t in my nature – but I’m working on it … getting that intent,” explains the player.
“From what he said to me, he does rate me, which is always nice to hear, but you’d obviously like to be picked. I suppose it is always tough to pick someone when they are coming back from injury or back from Scotland camp, when the guys who have been playing in that position have been going really well. I understand that – I might not agree with it at times – but I think it is part of the process that I have to go through.
“My career shot up from nothing really quickly and it was all going really well, and then a few injuries and having a bit of a tough time with Glasgow brought me back down to earth – I went into the Six Nations thinking it was going to be a good chance to get a few games under my belt, then did my knee in the second game and didn’t really play very much after that – but I think the experience has made me better as a player. It has been frustrating, but I’ve improved as a result.
The good news for Scotland, Glasgow Warriors and the player himself, is that Jones is now confident he has emerged back into the light. “I’m a lot happier now in pre-season,” he confirms. “I’m feeling fit again and the knee is fine. I’m just looking forward to these games and hopefully staying fit.
“I’ve chatted to a few guys who have been through it. I couldn’t believe it but Stuart Hogg says that he’s missed on selection a few times for Glasgow when he was younger, and Pete Horne has been through it all, so it is good to get advice from him.
“One of my aims this season, as long as I can stay fit, is to become undroppable. I’ve missed a lot of rugby, missed out on a lot of opportunities, so I think this will be an important year. Obviously, fingers crossed, the World Cup is the priority at the moment and I’d really like to go to that, but then after that I would really like to kick on with Glasgow, and really give it my best because my first two seasons so far I’ve not really done too much.”