STUART RUTHEFORD @ Murrayfield
WITH most of this week’s media focus falling on Scotland’s unproven – beside centurion Ross Ford – front-row, the selection of the relatively inexperienced pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones in the centre went largely unnoticed and uncommented on.
For Jones, it couldn’t get much tougher than this clash. Whilst making your full home debut is nerve-wracking enough, it doesn’t get any easier when it is against World Cup finalists Australia, whilst marking one of the world’s premier centres in Tuvita Kuridrani.
However, to say that the 22 year-old rose to the occasion in the 22-23 loss would be an understatement as the Edinburgh-born Jones excelled in all facets of the game – although it was in attack where he earned his stripes. The happy-go-lucky centre displayed his scintillating pace with two brilliantly taken tries, which ultimately earned him the man-of-the-match award.
Given the way Mark Bennett fit played against Australia in last year’s heart-breaking World Cup quarter-final loss, Vern Cotter’s decision to pick Jones at outside centre was perhaps a surprise, but it now looks a stroke of genius as he showed why Scottish Rugby have been so keen to get him involved in the national set-up.
Anyone who has played the outside-centre position knows just how tough a role it can be. In attack you are judged on your distribution, ability to break and decision making whilst in defence your are not only covering your opposite man, but are expected to drift and cover the oncoming full-back. In Jones’ case, what is incredible is that the large majority of his appearances for the Stormers have come from the bench, from where he was often deployed on the wing. Therefore, to put in as an established performance as he did this here, is quite staggering.
What stood out the most in particular was Jones’ decisiveness and maturity when in possession of the ball. When called upon, the centre showed the ability to make the right pass and showed no fear when carrying the ball into contact. His first try may have come from a designed set-piece move, however it was his own courage which was the defining factor. As Finn Russell’s chip sat up in front of the onrushing Israel Falau, Jones committed wholeheartedly to the ball, well aware that he may get flattened in the process, before gathering and breezing under the posts.
“We had worked on that move all week,” he said afterwards. “It had worked every time in training so I felt like the odds were pretty good.”
It was an incredible way to kick-start his debut, however he wasn’t finished just yet
With the score tied at 10-10 and Scotland growing on the ascendant but needing to make it show soon, Jones added his second score of the afternoon. This time around there was no designated set-piece as a blueprint. It was all his own doing. He collected the ball ten metres from the Australian try line and showed great instinct to cut outside his opposite man, Kuridrani, before swatting off the defensive efforts of Dane Haylett-Petty to go over in the corner.
The two tries may have earned Jones his deserved man-of-the-match, but it was his efforts in defence which must have truly impressed his team-mates and the coaching staff . After being partially to blame for Australia’s first try, when he and Sean Maitland both got lost in their attempts to tackle Haylett-Petty, the home debutant went from strength to strength as the game carried on.
Jones and Kuridrani’s sides faced each other in the Super Rugby, but the two players had never met before, and with the aforementioned having at least a two stone advantage, the latter showed plenty of guts in not being overwhelmed, as many have, by the Brumbies star.
Jones was also disruptive at the breakdown and was able to get his hands on the ball several times, stopping dangerous Wallabies’ attacks dead in their tracks.
Although Scotland ultimately fell at the last hurdle, Jones was clearly delighted with his first game on Scottish soil.
“It was obviously an unbelievable feeling to score two tries on your home debut and I thought personally I had a good game, but at the end of the day it is a team sport. We were gutted to finish the game on the losing side, especially when we felt like there was still time left to push into their half and win it,” he said.
Jones admitted that he had only been to Murrayfield once before when he was 11-years-old. Little could he have known back then that his next visit would be running out the tunnel with the blue jersey on and the number 13 on his back in front of 65,000 supporters.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere. I’ve never heard anything like that before, it was truly amazing,” he said. “It was good to have senior guys around you, like Alex Dunbar, who really help you through the match. It’s tough to hear them on the pitch with the crowd roaring, but it definitely helps.”
There was a feeling around Murrayfield that in Jones, a new star had emerged before our eyes, and although Scotland’s centre position is crowded with the likes of Duncan Taylor, Matt Scott Peter Horne and, of course, Mark Bennett waiting in the wings there is no doubt that if Jones continues to put in performances like he did here, he won’t be far away from selection for years to come.
What is interesting is Jones’ current club situation with the Stormers. Many now wonder if he will soon be on his way Scotland, but the player was giving nothing away.
“I have one more Super Rugby season with the Stormers and then I’m not sure what I will be doing after. It is all down to how I play over in South Africa and then I will choose what to do at the end of my contract,” he said