HUW JONES played it cool on Sunday evening when asked about his prospects of picking up his first Scotland cap in almost two years when the Six Nations gets under way in just under four weeks’ time – but he didn’t need to say much because he had just done his talking on the park.
Playing at inside-centre for Glasgow Warriors against reigning URC champions the Stormers, the 29-year-old had shone in an all-action performance by the Scotstoun men, laying on the final pass for both of the team’s first two tries, scoring the third himself with a flurry of ankle-breaker side-steps past flailing defenders, five line-breaks, 103 metres gained with ball in hand, and generally causing panic in the opposition ranks every time he got his hands on the ball.
“It’s not something I’m thinking about at the moment,” Jones – who missed the first two and a half months of this season whilst recovering from a back injury– replied when the prospect of being involved with Scotland this spring was raised. “I’ve only had three games this season so it might be too early. Obviously, it would be great to be involved with Scotland again, but, at the moment, I’ll just try to string together a couple of games with Glasgow.”
Sunday’s performance was reminiscent of the Jones who burst onto the Scottish rugby landscape with a phenomenal run between his debut against Japan in the summer of 2016 and the 2018 Six Nations, during which time he scored 10 tries in his first 14 Test matches, including a breath-taking double in the team’s first win over England in 11 years at Murrayfield in March 2018.
At that stage, the sky seemed to be the limit for the incisive-running centre, however a combination of injury, concerns about his defence and a lack of love from previous Warriors head coach Dave Rennie led to a dip in confidence and form, meaning that his career hit a glass ceiling in early 2019 and he ended up missing out on that year’s World Cup in Japan.
The emergence of Chris Harris as a defensive bulwark at outside-centre also contributed to Jones finding himself pushed to the international periphery, while his move to Harlequins ahead of last season definitely had an ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ effect on his profile for a lot of Scottish rugby fans.
However, that year proved to be just the ticket to get his career back on track, and he points out that he was supposed to tour Argentina with Scotland last summer before the back injury intervened.
“That [missing out on the tour] was a bit disappointing because I hadn’t been involved for a while before that,” he said. “The back is all fine now. I had two stress fractures in my lower back. It was a gradual injury that got worse towards the end of last season then it was too much to continue.
“Personally, I’ve improved as a player and my time at Quins was very valuable for me,” he added. “Across my game, it was refreshing to be with a new coaching staff, different players and different ideas. I played with some quality players down there – a lot of the England boys – so it was good to learn from them.
“And I played a load of games – 26 in the Gallagher Premiership and the Champions Cup – the most games I’ve ever played in a season. In my first stint up here, I didn’t really play the first three seasons. I’ve only just made my 50th appearance in five seasons! Whereas at Quins it was nice to just play loads, and I got better off the back of that.
“I’m a better player now than I ever have been. It’s pleasing for me. I’m happy with where I’m at but I want to keep improving and I’m sure I will, but where I am now, I’m better than I was when I was playing for Scotland back then and doing well. I now have more to offer.”
And the really good news for Glasgow fans is that he has returned north to a team which appears to be much better equipped to capitalise on Jones’ undoubted attacking gifts under the tutelage of new head coach Franco Smith.
Jones marked his first game back by scoring a try as Glasgow launched their Challenge Cup campaign with an away win against Bath back in early December, and then managed another 80-minutes and got on the scoresheet again as Warriors made it two from two in that tournament against Perpignan at Murrayfield six days later.
He was rested for the team’s back-to-back wins over Edinburgh during the festive season, before returning with a bang on Sunday.
“It’s a little frustrating when you miss out on a game, but I’d come off the back of a six-month injury, and I was a bit banged up after Perpignan, so I was ready for a rest,” said the player. “Franco is smart in the way he is rotating us. Obviously, we all want to play, so the hope is we all get enough game time. I was happy to be back in the shirt this weekend, for sure.
“The brand of rugby we’re trying to play – attacking, fast-paced – suits this whole group. We’re getting better at it, each day and each week in training we’re improving, and that’s showing in the results as well.
“The coaching is really good, everyone is buying-in and the standard at training is a lot higher now than it was when I was previously at the club.”
Warriors are now up to fifth in the URC table and a win in Perpignan on Friday night will pretty much guarantee qualification into the knock-out stages of this year’s Challenge Cup. The second-tier inter-continental competition not where the team want to be, but if they are in it then they want to win it, and these matches are a great opportunity for Franco to develop the depth of the squad as he did in that Bath match when several novice and fringe players were thrown in at the deep end then proved that they could swim.
“I don’t know whether it’s because I’m now more experienced and a little bit older and a better player, but looking at this squad and the way we play, I’m really confident about this group and where we can go,” concluded Jones.
“When I was last here, we got to a final and to a semi-final [of the old PRO14], and I think we can do something special, maybe this season, maybe next season.”