A casual visitor to Wales's training base in the Vale of Glamorgan could be forgiven for mistaking Mark Jones as one of the squad preparing for the Six Nations rather than a member of the management team. He looks younger than his 33 years and his rapid rise as a coach has mirrored that of his playing career.
Capped at 21, Jones won 47 caps on the wing for Wales, a total that would have been significantly greater but for a series of knee injuries that eventually ended his career just before the start of the 2010-11 season. As he contemplated a career outside rugby, he was asked by the then Scarlets' director of rugby Nigel Davies to assist with coaching the backs. Within three weeks, Davies was happy to stand back.
Jones has made such an impression at the Scarlets that when the Wales attack coach, Robert Howley, who is in overall charge while Warren Gatland takes a sabbatical,was looking for someone to take charge of the backs, his first call was to a former international team-mate under the reign of Graham Henry and who was a member of the 2008 grand slam-winning side.
"It was a surprise," said Jones, who will also be part of Wales' coaching team in Japan this summer. "Things have moved very quickly for me as a coach. I would still like to be playing, but when I was told my career was over I did not know what I was going to do. My parents run a farm, but I do not think I would have gone back to that. I would probably have learned a trade, using my hands, but when Nigel asked me if I was interested in being a coach, saying he felt I had the potential, I went for it."
Jones had experience of coaching. When he had reconstructive knee surgery in 2004 and was out for more than a season, he helped coach the backs at his local club, Builth Wells, helping them win promotion. As a player – he scored 85 tries in 164 matches on the wing for Llanelli and the Scarlets – he was eager to learn, not afraid to challenge coaches, and in an era when defences have come to dominate at the top level, he is pushing his players to seek space rather than contact.
"I came through the ranks at Llanelli under Gareth Jenkins and Nigel," he said. "They carried on the spirit of Carwyn James, looking to attack space. I think the rules of the game are weighted towards the defending teams. Playing in the wrong areas and showing an attacking intent can be detrimental if you do not get a line break: you can get turned over and concede points. I believe in trying to score from every set-piece in a dangerous area, going for the jugular, but you have to utilise the strength of the players in your back division."
England are taking the view that a team is very often better off without the ball, other than from set-pieces, because of the danger of getting turned over or penalised at the breakdown but Jones disagrees. "My mindset is different," he said. "Players should make the decision to play if they see something is on. I played on the wing and wanted the ball in my hand and in the modern game some of the most dangerous players are to be found out wide: Shane Williams has retired from international rugby, but the likes of George North, Chris Ashton, Alex Cuthbert and Bryan Habana are potent and it is crazy not to use them.
"It is about finding the balance between playing and winning. I am not a romantic; I understand you have to be practical but I do favour an attacking style of rugby. Anyone who pays to watch something has to be able to leave feeling they have had value for money, whether it is the West End or watching Builth Wells against Hirwaun, whether they have paid a fiver or £500. If you can produce an attractive brand of rugby that is successful, everyone is a winner.
"When Rob coached me in 2008, he was always straight with me and I have learned from that. Players want the truth and if I was uncomfortable with something, I would always ask, whether it was Rob about attack, Shaun Edwards regarding defence or Warren Gatland about strategy. It is about being open to ideas: the players hold all the information because they are the ones on the field and it is about prising it out of them. They have the answers."
Wales struggled to score tries in the autumn. After they lost to Samoa, the visiting captain, David Lemi, said the men in red had become predictable and easy to work out. Jones said his job was not to rewrite the attack book, but to tweak a few aspects. He has been working with Jamie Roberts on the big centre's skills with Wales rare among the leading teams in not having a second first receiver in their back division.
"Jamie has played at full-back and understands where space is on the field," said Jones. "He can put in attacking kicks and there is a lot more to his repertoire than perhaps we have seen in the last couple of seasons. I hope we will see that. There is little opportunity for skill development because of the short time we have with the players and how Wales play is in place; it would be counter-productive to try to change that in a short space of time. I can, though, play devil's advocate and if there is one thing I would like to see this Six Nations it is the use of the scrum as a means to attack. There is no better ball to use, but the set-piece has turned into a mess, detracting from the game itself. That has to change."
Wales have lost their past seven Tests and their regions are out of the two European tournaments, a contrast to Saturday's opponents, Ireland. "It is not about provincial and regional form, as our opening game in Dublin last year showed," said Jones. "It is all about this week. When we went to Twickenham at the start of the 2008, no one expected us to do anything but we won and that gave us momentum. We have a good chance on the weekend and we are at home."
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