The life and times of Lyn Jones, a unique Welsh rugby character who has a truly brilliant story to tell

The life and times of Lyn Jones, a unique Welsh rugby character who has a truly brilliant story to tell

I’ve encountered plenty of characters over three decades of covering Welsh rugby, but there has been no-one quite like Lyn Jones.

He’s been there pretty much the whole time. As a cub reporter, I covered the tail end of his playing days and there have been more than 25 years dealing with him as a coach.

It’s been some experience. You haven’t lived as a rugby journalist until you’ve been faced with one of his long pauses in response to a question.

They can go as long as the wait before the announcement of the winner of X Factor or Love Island!

But it’s usually worth the wait as he generally has something interesting, insightful or amusing to say – sometimes all three at once.

There is nothing quite like interviewing Lyn Jones, but I have lived to tell the tale and now it’s time to tell his.

He was born and raised in Cwmafan, near Port Talbot, attending school in Pontrhydyfen and Ystalyfera.

Having played for Cwmafan RFC at junior and youth level, his rugby adventure began in earnest when he joined Neath as a teenage flanker in the early 1980s.

That brought him under the wing of two men who were to have a huge influence on his career – team manager Brian Thomas and coach Ron Waldron.

“I gained so many principles and values of the game from them,” he tells me.

“I remember approaching Brian in my second week at The Gnoll to say how my ears were hurting me from the previous Saturday and perhaps I shouldn’t train that night.

“He bent over, looked me right in the eye and said ‘F*** off you p****’.

“I said ‘Right, ok, I’ll just get my kit on Brian, I’ll see you in five minutes’.

“Ron was the same. He demanded everybody gave everything they had all the time and there was no shirking.

“Those type of qualities made me and other players who they are. They shaped their careers.

“I certainly learned a huge amount from Brian and it helped me later on as a coach.”

Thomas, in turn, was a big admirer of Jones, describing him as “the fittest, fastest, cleverest and best back-row forward in Britain”.

“In today’s game, he would be director of rugby, with Ron head coach,” said Jones.

“They should have a statue of Brian at The Gnoll for what he did for the club.

“I am from Port Talbot, so my team was Aberavon, and I remember looking at the local paper, the Evening Post, on a Friday night to read who was playing for the respective clubs and every weekend Neath was full of AN Others and So Elses.

“It took Brian to come in and tell the committee to shove off and let him run the club, which they did.

“He revolutionised the team from zeros in 1981 to heroes in 1988-89. It was astonishing the progress he made.

“You can talk about Brian Clough and (Bill) Shankly and people like that and Brian was the same.

“Not only did he understand how to change and improve, but he didn’t suffer fools either.”

Jones’ time at Neath saw him share in three championship triumphs and two Welsh Cup wins. It also brought him into contact with some remarkable players. The two who really stand out for him are Jonathan Davies and Brian Williams.

“Jonathan was a special player for his attitude, his aggressiveness, his strength, his speed,” he said.

“You are talking about a time when there were holes everywhere, all over the field, and, with Jonathan’s vision and speed, you were going to score a try.

“My job at Neath was just to keep the ball alive as often as I could, get it through another pair of hands and hopefully it would find its way to him.

“He would keep people motivated to remind them to get the ball to him! If we could do that, it gave us the best chance.

Lyn Jones playing for Neath at the Gnoll in 1987
(Image: Huw Evans Agency)

“He was instrumental in helping Neath out of the doldrums. Everybody played a part, but sometimes you have to have a cherry on top of the cake and we were a different side when Jonathan played.

“I remember him scoring a spectacular try against Bath, at The Gnoll, in 1986.

“Then he did it again the following week against Bridgend and he had told his opposite number Aled Williams what he was going to do!

“You can’t coach that and you can’t mark it.

“Jonathan revolutionised rugby in the 1980s and gave us hope.”

Then there’s the late Brian Williams, a prop forward ahead of his time.

“The things he did was just stuff from superhero comics,” said Jones.

“I had been playing for Neath for six weeks and my knees were killing me from going backwards in the scrum.

“I had my back to the door in the changing rooms one day when Brian Thomas walked in and said ‘I’ve got a new player to introduce to you. His name is Brian Williams, he’s a prop from Narberth’.

“I turned round, I took a double look and I thought ‘That’s not the prop I am looking for’.

“I was looking for someone who was 18 stone, 6ft 3ins and shaped like a cornflakes box. Brian was not any of those. He was about 13 stone.

“Anyway, my first game with Brian was against Bridgend at The Gnoll.

“I remember he beat me across the field to a maul and there were about 10 players in there. It wasn’t going anywhere.

“Then, out of the blue, Brian comes out of the maul and runs down the field. I am thinking ‘Who the hell is this player? How did he do that?’

“When we played Pontypool, Graham Price would come down and Brian’s head would be on the floor. He couldn’t budge Graham obviously.

“But then, as soon as the scrum was over, bang, he was gone. He was across the field and playing rugby and getting on with it. He was an incredible individual.

“No matter what you did, whether training, playing touch rugby or playing against Pontypool or Penarth, what you had from Brian is what you had. He gave everything, 100 per cent, 100 miles an hour. He was a delight on and off the field.

“Players who stood out for me did so because they did superhuman things, things I couldn’t do and I admired that in people.

“There were lots of very good players, but Jonathan and Brian were exceptional.”

Former openside Jones looks back very fondly on his playing days with Neath in the 1980s.

“They were innocent times,” he said.

“You could express yourself as a player and as a rugby man. The atmosphere and the memories at The Gnoll were very special.

“I remember one particular game, we played Swansea there. It was a terribly cold day and it was the only game on in the UK.

“BBC Wales was there and Nigel Starmer-Smith came down from Rugby Special. For Neath to beat Swansea in those times was quite tough, but we managed to beat a star-studded side that day. It was a terrific memory.

“That stands out, along with the victory over Bath where Jonathan scored that fantastic try.”

After seven years at The Gnoll, Jones headed west to join Llanelli in 1990.

That saw him playing under Gareth Jenkins, a coach he describes as “very tactical” with “a great understanding of how to peak for games”.

It also saw him playing alongside another key influence in his career, Scarlets skipper Phil Davies.

“Phil was a great captain and a great rugby player,” he said.

“I remember one game, I was running across the field and, for whatever reason, I had fallen out of concentration.

“Phil came up behind me and screamed my name. I accelerated a bit after that!

“I keep telling young players that story. Don’t fall asleep on the field and keep working hard.

“It was Phil who actually explained to me what I was doing on a rugby field and why it was important for the team.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was just doing it because I liked doing it and didn’t realise what the consequences were of my actions.

“So Phil sat down and explained them. He was always encouraging, always confident.”

Lyn Jones goes down on the ball for Llanelli against his former club Neath in the 1993 Swalec Cup final

Jones’ time with the Scarlets also saw him dovetailing with fellow flanker Mark Perego, another of Welsh rugby’s greatest characters.

“The stereotypical action of a rugby player in the golden days was to finish playing at 4.30pm on a Saturday and then have a gallon of alcohol, which meant you weren’t able to recover until about Tuesday afternoon,” said Jones.

“Well, Mark Perego wasn’t like that. He recovered straight after the game and got himself ready, which we all thought at the time was a bit strange. But it wasn’t strange, it was the right way to do things.

“Mark was a professional before his day. When he played rugby, he wanted to do it to the utmost and to the best of his ability. He worked very hard.

“I thoroughly enjoyed Mark’s company and he was a good man to speak to and a very entertaining man, but very private also.

“He was his own man and I respected that.

“He was great to play with in terms of his focus, his attitude. I didn’t learn how to tackle until I was about 27, 28 and it was only through playing with Mark and watching him make all my tackles that I realised how you do it.

“I remember one game against Bridgend at Stradey Park I managed to get him to make four of my tackles within 15 seconds. That’s probably the best piece of rugby I ever produced!

“A lot of people remember the footage of him on the BBC running through the woods with an axe, cutting trees up.

“The following week it was my turn to do it. I did a parody of Mark. He had a big 10lb axe, I just had a little hatchet!

“It was a bit tongue-in-cheek from him. He finished off hanging upside down peeling a tangerine. That was Mark.”

Playing rugby in the 1980s and ‘90s was not an experience for the faint-hearted, especially as a No 7 having to go down on the ball, and Jones has the scars to prove it.

“I played for Neath against Newport in the quarter-final of the cup one year and one of their big, heavy forwards stamped on me,” he said.

“I couldn’t breathe until Tuesday and I’ve still got the scar to show for it now.

“When I had a spell playing club rugby in South Africa, I had my shorts ripped off my backside with their second row dancing up and down.

“But it’s only pain, it only lasts for a few seconds, you get up and get on with it. That was the game then.

“Back in the day, you did have a few characters who did nothing but kick and punch.

“They couldn’t play rugby and weren’t particularly brave people. They were quite dangerous for the game.

“But every team had characters who were there to physically police the game and to make sure there was not too much naughty stuff going on, so everybody else could play.”

He continued: “I remember playing for the Scarlets against Northampton once and Buck Shelford was playing for them.

“I managed to get the better of him in one particular incident and, at the following scrum, I could feel him looking at me and wanting to punch my head off my shoulders.

“I just managed to duck in time as I felt the wind sweeping over my head. I had a nice way of missing punches!”

As a player, Jones was renowned for his link work and his inventiveness, along with his speed to the breakdown.

Eventually, at the age of 29, the call came from Wales, as his form for the Scarlets was rewarded.

So, in May 1993, he made his Test debut against Zimbabwe, packing down alongside club colleagues Perego and Emyr Lewis in the back row out in Bulawayo.

Four more were caps to follow that year, taking his tally to five, ahead of him finishing his playing career with a spell at Treorchy.

It was with the Zebras that he cut his coaching teeth, before returning to Neath, helping guide them to Premiership and Welsh Cup glory in 1996 and the cup again in 2001.

Ospreys boss Lyn Jones (left) along with fellow regional coaches Lynn Howells, Dai Young, Gareth Jenkins and Mike Ruddock in 2003
(Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency)

Then came the switch to regional rugby and a five-year spell at the helm of the Ospreys, which brought two Celtic League titles and an EDF Anglo-Welsh Cup triumph.

There have been subsequent coaching spells with London Welsh, the Dragons and out in Abu Dhabi and Namibia, while for the past three years he has been in charge of the Russian national team.

It’s a journey that has seen him work with some supremely gifted individuals, notably Shane Williams, who he handed his first big break at Neath.

“Shane was one of the greatest players ever to play for Wales, without a shadow of a doubt,” he said.

“I didn’t really coach him very much. You just gave him the licence to get on and play and enjoy. Probably the biggest decision I made was pushing him from scrum-half to the wing.

“Gavin Henson was another player who didn’t need much coaching. You just put him in the right position and made the right environment for him. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him.

“One of my memories is down at St Helen’s where Sean Holley and I were putting vaseline on Gavin’s legs before a game to make sure he didn’t get any on his hands.

“I looked up, out of the corner of my eye, and Jason Spice couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was just shaking his head disapprovingly towards me, mouthing something not very complimentary.”

Currently, Jones is out in Russia, preparing for games against the Netherlands and Spain in the Rugby Europe Championship, which forms part of the qualification process for the 2023 World Cup in France.

It’s a job which provides some pretty unique moments, even for him.

“When players have a bit of spare time in the UK, the soccer ball or the cricket bat comes out and they have a little dabble of a game or two,” he says.

“In Russia, when there’s a spare five minutes, you look over your shoulder and there’s two players wrestling on the floor!

“You think there’s trouble afoot, but there’s not. It’s just part of the culture. They have a little wrestle with each other. It’s what they’ve grown up with.

“Wrestling is up there as the number two sport in Russia, after ice hockey. Then you’ve got basketball and football.

“Rugby is down there probably about 20th in the list after alpine skiing, ice skating, bobsleigh and all sorts of sports.

“But it’s a sport that’s on the rise in the country.

“Fair play to the Federation, they have done a lot of work in trying to grow the game.

“They are very proud people. They just want their country to do well. They totally understand where they are in rugby. There are no inflated opinions or grandeur.

“It’s been absolutely a pleasure and an honour to come to Russia to coach players and to experience and meet people.

“The Russian people are unbelievably welcoming.”

Russia coach Lyn Jones in Red Square, Moscow

Now 57, the much-travelled Jones is still very much at rugby’s coal face.

“I still enjoy it as much as ever and still get pleasure from stepping onto the training pitch and working with players,” he said.

“That’s what I’m best at, being on the green, coaching players.

“What’s difficult, as a coach, is everything off the field, organising and dealing with people who perhaps have a different idea of what rugby should look like and an unqualified opinion.

“But I still love being on the field, helping players become better, designing new training methods.

“It’s fulfilling when you see improvement and you see people getting better.

“Rugby people are rugby people. It’s the same the whole world over.

“You get the same characters. Everybody shares the same goals, the same problems, the same highs and lows that the game can offer.”

So when he looks back at it all, what has been his proudest moment in coaching?

“Probably when Wales beat England at Twickenham in 2008 when they had 13 Ospreys,” he replies.

“I think you actually phoned me when Warren Gatland selected that team, to ask me for a reaction, and it was mind-blowing. That was such a proud time because the Ospreys were in their infancy. That’s right up there.

“Beating Leicester in the EDF trophy final at Twickenham was special and so was winning the Celtic League for the first time, in 2005, with four games to spare. That was a hell of a night and a hell of a season. We played some scintillating rugby.

“London Welsh winning the Championship final in 2013 was a miracle, it really was. That was such a fun, happy time at Old Deer Park, one of the better seasons in my career.

“Going to the World Cup with Russia was very special and even coaching the Welwitschias in Namibia, going to South Africa and winning a game in Johannesburg, which hadn’t happened for 25 years. That meant so much to them.

“Magic moments. It’s why we coach, why we get involved, to see the happiness.”

And Lyn Jones is certainly a man who has put a smile on a lot of people’s faces over the years.

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