Alun Wyn Jones has been backed by his old coach Sean Holley to prove the doubters wrong by remaining an important figure in Wales’ plans heading for the World Cup next year.
Jones attracted adverse reviews for the first time in his career after the Six Nations encounter with Italy a week last Saturday. With Wales suffering a shock defeat, the 36-year-old found himself under scrutiny on his return to the side after five months out.
But Holley, who coached Jones when the player broke into the Ospreys set-up as a teenager in 2005, insists it is premature to pen Test rugby obituary of his former charge, saying: “I’m not sure we should be judging a player on his first game back after five months out.
“Let’s judge him on the 500 or so matches he’d played before or when he has a chance to bank more game-time after the injury he picked up last autumn. He’s still in great physical condition and he’s still invaluable off the field. His presence is huge, along with his leadership and his experience.
“Of course, he has to be managed at his age. The Italy clash was difficult with the lack of game-time beforehand, the occasion, the poor team performance, but you can’t pin the side’s display on one player. For me, Wales missed the experience of not just Alun Wyn but of other players as well in the Six Nations.”
The assignment in the final Six Nations round was always going to be tough for Jones, with the lock replacing Will Rowlands, arguably Wales’ player of the tournament. It would have taken an exceptional effort to satisfy those who had originally questioned the selection.
Jones was far from the worst against the Azzurri, and if Wales had won it’s unlikely there would have been too many bullets fired his way. But defeat changed the narrative. Some have argued it is time for Jones to depart the Test scene, but Holley feels he will stay in Pivac’s plans heading for the global tournament in France in 17 months’ time.
“I do see Al being part of Wales’ squad at the World Cup,” Holley said. “I think that’s long been the target. What his role will be, we’ll have to wait and see. But with this current squad, with no Ken Owns and no Justin Tipuric and Jon Davies not a regular starter any more, plus question marks over whether Liam Williams will continue to be, all of a sudden you are shorn of a third of your team and the guys with the most caps.
“We don’t know if those situations will change in the coming months. But it’s very important to have Al in the picture and give him a chance to prove his form. It’s then up to the coaches to decide whether to pick him.
“Players should be judged on what they contribute. Accepted, the body doesn’t do what it used to do when a player hits his mid-30s, but the mind compensates. You have that experience, you know the cheat lines and the little nuances of the game, and those things get you through.
“It’s still possible for a seasoned player to play great rugby. Paul O’Connell did so for Ireland, Victor Matfield did so for South Africa. At the Ospreys Filo Tiatia joined in his mid-30 and played fantastic rugby for the region for a number of years. So there’s no reason why Al can’t continue to operate successfully at a very high level. He has such knowledge of his position that he can still do well, even at his age.”