When Wayne Pivac’s coaching ticket was announced in December 2018, it was the name of Stephen Jones that perhaps generated the most excitement.
He was the man at the helm of a Scarlets attack that was scoring tries for fun while remaining pleasing to the eye. The prospect of him taking charge of Wales’ attack and providing a certain je ne sais quoi was a salivating one.
In truth though, Jones’ first 12 months didn’t quite go to plan.
Naturally, the former Wales fly-half would never have expected the transition to international coaching to be totally straightforward, but his first year in the job has been tough.
Throughout 2020, Wales spluttered and stuttered to just three victories. There was a lack of a clear gameplan and it was one of the many sticks use to beat Wayne Pivac’s side with.
However, it now seems like Wales are starting to bear the fruits of last year’s tricky labour.
For Jones, stepping into the biggest job of his coaching career so far hasn’t always been easy given the tumultuous nature of 2020, but he’s delighted the tide is now seemingly turning in his favour.
“I was fortunate to have the experience of working with Warren Gatland at the World Cup,” said the 43-year-old.
“The Six Nations was obviously cut short. We didn’t have the tour so we didn’t have access to players for a long time.
“With the autumn, we made it clear what the autumn series was about, which was to develop and learn about a lot of the players.
“With that goes a bit of the results, but it was about the bigger picture.
“But so far, we’re two from two and we’ve got good momentum which is exactly what we want.”
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The disruption of last year is a factor that is often overlooked, perhaps willingly.
Wales have undergone the biggest wholesale change of any Test rugby team in the past year – losing a decade’s worth of intellectual property on their coaching staff and moving in a different direction with a new set of coaches.
The impact that coronavirus had on them cannot be understated, robbing them of much-needed minutes on the training paddock.
The regression from last year’s Six Nations, where Wales had shown glimpses and improved as time went on, was perhaps inevitable after so long out. Add in the decision to blood youth in the autumn at the expense of results and suddenly the pressure was mounting on the coaches.
It would have been easy for things to fall apart quickly, but if Wales’ two victories have shown anything so far, it’s that the squad is still blessed with a steely determination.
“I think if you look at the squad, there’s a lot of guys who have won a lot of trophies,” adds Jones. “There’s a lot of good leaders in this squad. They drive the standards and when the young guys are exposed to that, it helps them develop.
“You look at the character of the group, it’s very, very good. The manner we’ve won… the group has shown great self-belief and that’s credit to the players.”
Another pleasing aspect has been where Wales have learnt from previous mistakes.
Whereas the autumn was largely characterised by an uninspiring attack ruined by slow ball and breakdown issues, Wales, while far from perfect, have resolved a number of problems.
They look all the better for it, having scored six tries in their opening two matches despite being second-best in the possession and territory columns in both games.
For Jones, the task of improving Wales’ attack – and, in turn, learning more about himself as a coach – is a constant, never-ending one.
“You’re learning all the time. It’s as simple as that,” Jones explained.
“Whether you’re learning about certain players you work with or law changes that affect something.
“The most recent one was the autumn where the contact area was key. Talking from an attack perspective, efficiency there and how you get the speed of ball to play the want to play is the big focus.
“Gareth Williams has been fantastic for us in that aspect. When you attack, you want to control and dictate the speed of the game.
“Being efficient in the contact area allows you to do that.”
Wales’ added efficiency in the contact area has allowed them to be more clinical with the limited possession they’ve had, hence the increase in tries.
It begs the question are we currently witnessing the attack that Jones had envisioned for Wales when he accepted the job back in 2018? The Scarlets way, if you will?
“I think it’ll be different if I’m honest with you,” he admitted.
“First of all, the boys were ruthless. The opportunities they created and how they converted them were very good.
“The key for us is that when we play and attack with the ball we’ve seen it in patches but we want to see more of it.
“Speed of ball, how we shape defences, that is our focus point. We just want to do that for longer periods, that is our goal.
“It’s a challenge to have, everyone understands how we want to play.
“Yes, we want to be ruthless but ultimately we want to create more as well.”
Of course, having a finisher like Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing is always helpful when it comes to the attack.
The danger is that the young man, only just 20, gets consumed by sort of hype that is somewhat unique to Welsh rugby’s goldfish bowl.
Jones, though, isn’t too concerned about that. He believes the Gloucester wing has more than enough about him to temper the expectations and get on with things at his own pace.
“He’s aware he’s got a lot to work on. Both sides of the ball to work hard on. There’s a lot of focus points,” said Jones.
“The key for me is we all know he’s got talent, but he’s putting in the hard work.
“That’s how you make the big gains. He’s a good person to work with, but he understands he’s got a lot to work on.”
For Jones now, there’s the prospect of a first piece of silverware as Wales coach next weekend.
Eddie Jones’ England are in town – albeit without the sort of swagger you might expect as defending Six Nations champions – but for Jones, it’s another chance to test his attack.
“We’ve got a huge amount of respect for England for what they’ve achieved, in last year’s Six Nations and the autumn,” he said.
“The players they’ve got, their mindset and repeatability in defence, I respect them in that part of the game. For our attack it’s a great challenge and one we’ve got to really look forward to.
“We know it’s going to be a physical challenge, but we’re back in Cardiff and are two from two. There’s a lot of momentum and huge amount of excitement here.”