GLASGOW’s win over Edinburgh on Friday night may have been unmemorable, and their defeat the previous week one they would rather forget, but there have still been some positive outcomes from the derby double-header for Danny Wilson and his new coaching team, not least the performance of Huw Jones at full-back.
Two games do not constitute conclusive evidence, but the Scotland centre did enough in those outings at 15 to suggest he can be the solution in a position which had become the head coach’s biggest worry when a freeze was put on recruitment. With Rufus McLean an untested quantity and Glenn Bryce only on a short-term contract, Wilson needed an adventurous selection for the Edinburgh matches and ideally for the longer term. He has other options at centre, albeit no-one who has quite the attacking verve of Jones at his best, so the experiment made sense – especially as Jones had some experience of the position from his days in South Africa.
Crucially, the player himself was eager to try out the move – one, it turns out, that he had been willing to make for some time. If neither derby gave him much of an opportunity to show what he can do on the counter-attack, he said after the 15-3 win that he now felt comfortable in his adopted position.
“I do, yeah. I’ve covered 15 for a long time. I feel like every coach I’ve ever had has said to me ‘Oh, you could be good at 15’ but never actually tried me there. So Danny’s actually gone for it and these first two games it’s gone pretty well.
“Obviously with Edinburgh you expect a lot of kicking, so I got my head around that and prepared to get up for those high balls. I think it went pretty well, although I’d obviously like to see more of the ball on attack – but I think it’s been a long lockdown and both teams are a bit rusty so the attack wasn’t quite there. With the new breakdown laws as well, we weren’t really holding on to the ball for long enough.
Asked if he thought his move to a new position would be long term, Jones continued: “I’d be happy to. I spoke to Danny after the first game and he said ‘What do you reckon, are you keen to stay?’ and I said ‘Look, as long as I’m on the field, I’m happy’. So yes, I’m happy to stay at 15, so going into the new season I’d be really happy to stay there.
“There’s still competition at 15 at Glasgow, but if I can hold down that position and get regular game time then the confidence will come back and I’ll see much better performances. No-one benefits from stop-start, where you come in for one week and miss another two, or only play every other week. I think if you want to get guys playing well then they need some continuity.”
That cutting edge in attack has always been Jones’s strongest suit, while the most common criticism of him, certainly at international level, has been his defence. He has worked hard on that side of his game, but thinks that tactical changes to the 13 role have possibly made him more suited to full-back.
“I think the game’s changed a bit,” he explained. “When I first started playing 13 earlier in my career, it was an attacking position where you were looking to get on the ball. That’s slightly changed with certain teams and coaches where 13 is now the defensive leader. If I’m coming under scrutiny then I’m maybe not the defensive leader. I like to think I can defend pretty well, but 15 at the moment, with the way the game is going, probably suits my attributes a bit more.
“But I’d like to think I can do a job in both positions. There’s pressure at 15, but there’s also a lot of pressure at 13. You’ve got a big channel to defend and multiple runners coming at you a lot of the time. If I’m honest, these last two games I’ve felt pretty relaxed at 15 on defence. As long as you know your role it’s pretty simple – you’re either waiting for the kick or taking last. I think 15s often make it sound harder than it is.”
Still only 26, Jones has run up a quarter-century of Scotland caps since making his Test debut off the bench against Japan in 2016. He is as yet uncertain how his international future could be affected if the move to full-back becomes long-term, having only spoken to Gregor Townsend about it shortly after being told of the switch by Wilson. But he is convinced that he is versatile enough to switch from one position to the other if required.
“All the coaches were checking in on guys throughout lockdown and on the day he [Townsend] called me I’d just been told by Danny that he was going to try me at 15. I’ve not spoken to Gregor about it since, but the more I get to play the better shape I’ll be in. Whether he sees me as a 15 or a 13 or someone who can cover both, that’s up to him. I think he knows what I can do in the centre.
“With the training we do, with the unit sessions where you’re swapping in and out, I do plenty of 13 and I do plenty of 15, so I think [I can cover both]. I probably fall into that bracket of utility back at the moment that could slot in anywhere. Going into a Scotland camp, if selected, and they told me ‘Look, you’ve been selected to be a 13’, I’d obviously be doing most of my training at 13 so I’d be prepared for that situation. And vice versa if I was told I was training as a 15. I wouldn’t be worried about that.”