WITH a name like Huw Jones, you might assume that the Scotland centre feels some sort of kindred connection with Wales, but his only two previous visits to Cardiff in the dark blue jersey were such miserable experiences that you can be pretty sure that revenge rather than reconnecting will be his primary focus during this Saturday’s Six Nations round one clash at the Principality Stadium.
In February 2018, Jones was the rising star in the Scotland squad – threatening to put Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg in the shade having scored seven tries in 11 Test appearances – when he was shifted from outside-centre to inside-centre for the first Six Nations match of the Gregor Townsend era, and although he was one of only a few players to emerge from that game with pass marks (even managing to hold prop Wyn Jones up to avert a certain try), the 34-7 defeat was a harrowing experience for all the squad.
The next visit, in November 2018, in a money-making extra Autumn Test, brought even more disappointment, and for Jones it was a personal low as he fell off tackles during the lead-up to both of Wales’ two tries in a 21-10 defeat. It was the first time that his defence really came under public scrutiny and proved to be a turning point in his career.
Jones was dropped from the match-day squad for the following weekend’s home game against Fiji, and although he did return to face South Africa and Argentina, his star was already on the wane.
The combination of a club coach at Glasgow Warriors in Dave Rennie who was unconvinced by his value to the team, injury and dip in confidence meant that by the time of the 2019 World Cup, Jones was so far out of the loop that he didn’t even make the plane to Japan – and he admits that there were points during the next two years, particularly during his 2021-22 season with Harlequins, when he believed that there was no viable route back into the international game.
The story of Jones’ journey to Scotland redemption, first at Harlequins and then back at Glasgow after his move back to Scotstoun in the summer of 2022, is well-rehearsed and doesn’t need repeating in blow-by-blow detail here – but as he looked ahead to Saturday’s match in Wales it did feel like an appropriate time to prod him into reflecting on how he has developed as an individual and a player over the last five years.
“It was certainly a tough day,” he says of that 2018 experience. “I think the good thing is that it was quite a long time ago, so I’ve had time to reflect, and the big thing is I’ve had time to learn and improve. It’s not something I think about, really, anymore.
“It’s actually not really crossed my mind this week, but when you look back it was a bit of a shocker. I guess everyone has bad games in their career – you don’t want to have one in a big game, but it’s a few years ago now. I’ve definitely improved, I’ve learnt a lot as a player and a person. So, I wouldn’t say it haunts me or anything – I’ve moved on from it.”
After an outstanding return to the international fray during the 2023 Six Nations, Jones was one of only two Scotland players – along with midfield partner in crime Sione Tuipulotu – to make the official team of the tournament.
Then, four years after the agony of missing out on the Japan expedition, he finally made it to a World Cup last Autumn. And while he struggled to impose himself in the games that mattered in France, that does not mark him out as any different to almost all of his team-mates.
While the form of Cam Redpath, Rory Hutchinson and Stafford McDowall during the first half of this seasonwith Bath, Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors respectively means that the ‘Huwipulotu’ selection is not a foregone conclusion, it would be a big call to leave either of those characters out. That said, bitter experience has taught Jones not to take anything for granted.
“If I’m honest, there were times when I definitely thought that I had played my last game for Scotland,” he says. “I got to a point where I wasn’t really getting much communication. It seemed like there was nothing I could really do to get back into the squad.
“All it is, really, is just a run of games and a bit of form. But yeah, there was certainly a time when I had left Glasgow and was down at Quins when I thought that was it for me. I think it was the Six Nations I didn’t get selected for [just two years ago in 2020].
“Coming back to Glasgow definitely helped me, to get back playing and back playing well with other Scottish players. I am really enjoying it and I do feel really grateful that it wasn’t finished for me a couple of years ago.
“But there is always fierce competition in the centres. Everyone is going really well, whether it is Cam at Bath or Hutch at Northampton Saints who are top of the table and playing really nice rugby, and then it is tough even to get into the centres at Glasgow with Sione and Stafford. So, there is really good competition, which is great for the squad, and that’s what you want to drive the team forward and be able to achieve results.”
When pushed on where he made the changes necessary to push his way back into the Scotland team – at the expense of 2021 Lions Test player Chris Harris, who has missed out on this Six Nations – Jones gives a weary shrug but doesn’t duck the honest answer.
“Look, there’s no hiding from the fact that I’ve made defensive errors in games,” he acknowledges. “It’s certainly been a focus point because it was something that was highlighted by coaches who said it was something that needed to improve, so I’ve obviously had to go away and work on that.
“I think having learnt a lot more about the game from different coaches, from different players, and the way I see pictures developing in front of me, I’ve got a lot better at that.
“In the beginning I probably hadn’t played enough professional rugby to experience that sort of pressure in those quick, highly-pressured defensive situations where you can get exposed really quickly. But I I’m a little bit older now, I’ve played a lot more games, I’ve trained with good players and the coaching … Steve Tandy has been absolutely brilliant, across the squad and with me personally.
“So, I now see those pictures and I’m able to read things a lot better. I’m able to use my physicality in the tackle more effectively.”
Evidence of Jones being a more rounded player can be gleaned from his recent deployment on the wing for Glasgow during a minor back-three injury crisis at the club. The 30-year-old took it all in his stride to earn praise from teammates and coaches for his unflappability, particularly in defence and under the high ball. But he was delighted to get back into midfield for the club’s final outing before the Six Nations window, marking the occasion with two tries in a man-of-the-match performance against Toulon two weekends ago.
“Yeah, it was important for me – probably more important than I actually realised,” he smiles. “Being on the wing, I didn’t mind it too much. But obviously 13 is my preferred position.
“Getting back in there and having a good game was good for the confidence. Getting back in there with Sioneand to connect again was good. It came at the right time.
“We train week-in, week-out, regardless of what position I’m playing. But when you play together in a game and you execute, it does help.
“Injuries can happen at any time so having that versatility is good and has been good for me in the past. I don’t really mind where I play. Obviously, I think 13 is my best position, but I’ll play anywhere.
“I would rather be on the field than not. If my job is to play on the wing or at full-back, I’m happy to do it.”
So, speaks a man who has experience of being cast into the international wilderness, and has no intention of going through that anguish again.