Today it was announced that Mark Jones will be leaving the region at the end of the season after 18 years of loyal service. Statistics don’t lie and 85 tries in 163 Llanelli and Scarlet appearances show the value of the flyer from Builth Wells. However, I think it is fair to say that Mark Jones has cut a disconsolate figure this season. Very much valued by Easterby he appears to have been marginalised by Pivac and the announcement that his tenure will come to an end in May came as no surprise to the majority of the Scarlet faithful.
It is unfair to lay our meagre try scoring solely at his door as in truth a constantly changing team with little continuity and a dearth of options would have hamstrung (no pun intended) the most talented coach. Nevertheless, for a number of seasons our attacking play has amounted to considerably less than the sum of its parts and it is this legacy along with our present struggles that have resulted in the Scarlets seeking a fresh voice and approach.
As a player, Mark was an electric runner, revelling in the wide open spaces and excelling in a foot race. He glided over the ground at searing pace, particularly during his early years. Unfortunately, Mark was plagued by severe injury problems throughout his career. A flying start, in which the tries flowed freely was curtailed by two career threatening knee injuries and it took him a significant period of time to recover the confidence and pace of old. He re-announced himself to European rugby in December of 2005 when he scored a scintillating try in the mist at Stradey against Wasps, sealing a 21-13 victory over the 2004 champions.
Another memorable moment was a brilliant individual score at the Madejski Stadium in Reading in October 2006. Receiving the ball in his own half and faced with Topsy Ojo, the darling of the English media, and little room to maneouvre, Mark stood Ojo up before beating him in the tightest of spaces and scorching to the line. A blur of blue and a famous Scarlet victory. Thank you, Mark for your loyalty, hard work, dedication and some superb memories. A fine Scarlet.
His replacement? You may have heard of him. A Scarlet called Stephen. Stephen Jones that is. One of the finest Scarlets ever to don the jersey. The Count. Wellies. He may not have been quick but he could carry a fridge on his back. If ever there was a signing to excite and galvanise a browbeaten support, Stevo is it.
Stevo gave everything that was possible to give to the Scarlets either side of his two year sabbatical in Clermont. A metronomic goalkicker, a superb tackler and a masterful controller. We were spoilt. He got the very most from himself for the Scarlets and Wales time and again. His ferocious determination to succeed and high standards of professionalism can hopefully inspire our young playing squad to new heights.
But what of him as a coach? Lord knows that the ‘jobs for the boys’ accusation has been levelled at the club by disgruntled supporters on more than one occasion, and perhaps justifiably so. Is this the correct appointment or the convenient appointment?
Current Wasps tighthead prop Jake Cooper-Wooley is adamant that the Wasps squad rate him very highly and did not want him to go. He stressed, “He’s great. Nicest, most humble bloke you’d ever meet. Crazy considering what he’s done. Going to miss having him around.” He continues, “I don’t really know about the backs stuff but the team stuff he does is good and when we get the right personnel out there we play some real nice stuff.” A glowing reference indeed.
In addition, ex Wasp Rory Pitman spoke very highly of him on the opening day post Ulster in his interview, making a point of referencing ‘Steve’ and thanking him for his help and efforts. As I type this, Nigel Davies is speaking to Radio Wales saying that, “the opportunity to return was too good to resist. The opportunity was there and he felt he had to take it, otherwise I think he would have stayed at Wasps.” This is all very promising but, ultimately, in a results based business the proof will be in the pudding.
Nonetheless, a positive statement of intent from the club. Welcome home, Stevo. Back where you belong. Get in there!