Wallaby watch: Luke Jones

With the Lions tour to Australia now less than two years away, we'll be taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland's elite. [more]

Wallaby watch: Luke Jones

With the Lions tour to Australia now less than two years away, we’ll be taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland’s elite.

Over the next 20 months we’ll give you the lowdown on the star names who pose the biggest threat to the Lions’ hopes of a first series victory in 16 years.

Some of the players we highlight will already be household names but others will be bolts from the blue, youngsters yet to appear on the big stage or experienced club campaigners peaking at just the right time to achieve the ultimate goal.

We’ll assess the veteran internationals who believe themselves worthy of a recall, as well as the foreign-based stars who may return home just in time to stake a claim for a second shot at Test glory.

Last month we assessed the hopes of hooker Stephen Moore, a Wallaby regular and a seemingly safe bet for a starting spot against the Lions. This time we take a different approach as we throw a curve ball in the form of rank outsider Luke Jones.

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Largely unheard of outside of Australia, Jones is being tipped as the next big thing.

At just 20 years of age, the versatile forward is currently a million miles away from Wallaby selection but that could all change by the time the Lions arrive Down Under. If Jones can transfer his sensational form in the junior game into two fine seasons of Super Rugby, then the whole of Britain and Ireland may know who he is by the summer of 2013.

Simply looking at the youngster’s stats since turning pro would be unlikely to convince even the biggest of believers that a part in the Lions Test series could be a real possibility, but fast facts can often be deceiving. 

As things stand heading towards the end of 2011, Jones has just three Super Rugby caps to his name and very little else to shout about on the senior scene, but that should begin to drastically change in 2012.

Having joined the Rebels from the Western Force prior to the start of last season, Jones is being lined up to play a far more prominent role in his second year in Melbourne than he did in his first. Rebels coaches Rod Macqueen and Damian Hill see Jones as more than just a promising prospect and, if whispers around the Melbourne camp are correct, Jones should feature heavily in their matchday squads next season.

The 6ft 6in youngster, who was initially classified by the newest Super Rugby franchise as a lock and has also played No8, should become a regular feature on the Rebels’ blindside flank next term, even if he is used as a replacement during the early stages of the campaign.

Such a step forward would be another impressive milestone in the career of a player who first hit the national headlines as a fresh-faced schoolboy.

Contrary to widespread belief, teenagers don’t often get a chance to impress on the Super 15 or international stage in Australia, making Jones’ early career path even more remarkable. The likes of James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale are actually in the minority, with Australia’s penchant for youth often over exaggerated due to the success of players of their calibre. The more traditional route to senior selection is to stay in the Sydney or Queensland Club scene until your early 20s, before making a mark at Super 15 level and then hitting the Wallabies. 

Reaching the top of the tree in quicker than quick time is even harder as a forward so Jones clearly still has it all to do before 2013 but the former New South Wales Schools captain is no stranger to setting records following a sensational rise to the professional ranks.

By agreeing terms with the Western Force at just 18 years of age, Jones becamethe first forward in the entire history of Australian rugby to sign a full-time professional contract whilst still in school.

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Luke Jones hopes to become a regular with the Rebels next season

His former rugby teacher at St Pius X College in Chatswood, North Sydney identified Jones as a Wallaby early on in his school days and plenty of colleagues and coaches have since echoed that assessment. Current Rebels team-mates Danny Cipriani and Stirlong Mortlock have already seen enough in Jones’ fledgling career to suggest he can make it all the way to the top sooner rather than later.

“He’s very young but very athletic and very eager to learn. He’s got a great engine on him, too. So he’s got all the attributes you want,” is Mortlock’s view of his club colleague. High praise indeed when you consider that the veteran centre has been there and done it all having represented the Wallabies in 80 internationals and captained them on 29 of those occasions.

Ex-England fly-half and future Lions hopeful Danny Cipriani has also been hugely impressed by Jones and not just with his athleticism but his attitude too.

“Luke’s got a massive engine on him. He won’t find a guy with a better engine so that’s a good start. He’s just got to build on that,” added Cipriani.

“The good thing about him is that he’s willing to learn and to work on the things he’s not so good at. He’s one of the last people off the training field every session.

“He might not be the best at his skill sets right at the minute but I can tell you that by the end of pre-season he will have improved a lot. He seeks out people like Michael Lipman and Gareth Delve and he’s working with them consistently.”

Jones will certainly need to maintain thatsubstantial work ethic if he is to have any chance of gaining a Test spot when the Lions head to OZ but there’s no doubting that he has all the raw attributes to achieve that lofty target. Yes, it’s a long shot, but stranger things have happened.

Just look at the last the set of Lions to leave these shores in 2009: anyone outside of Wales heard of Leigh Halfpenny a year before departure for South Africa? Didn’t think so. The Blues wing was on an academy contract the season before his Lions call, while fellow tourist Keith Earls was hardly a household name beyond Irish borders in 2008. It’s happened before with the likes of Simon Taylor in 2001 and there’s no doubt a Lions series will continue to spring plenty of surprises in years to come. Don’t be against Jones becoming the latest name to be added to that lengthy list.
 
Fast facts

Name: Luke Jones
Date of birth: 02/04/1991
Position: Blindside flanker, No8, lock
Club: Melbourne Rebels
Previous clubs: Western Force
Height: 6ft 6in
Weight: 17 stone
Test caps: Uncapped
Honours: Australia Schoolboys; Australia U20

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths: work rate, athleticism and attitude.

Weaknesses: still largely untested in Super Rugby, Jones is lacking in experience and it remains unclear how he will cope at the highest level.

Chances of being involved against the Lions: a real long shot at the moment but a decent outside bet nonetheless. If he can turn the potential he showed at the recent U20 World Championships into practical success then he could be a bolt from the blue come 2103.

Rivals for the Wallaby shirt

As things stand, Jones has it all to do if he is to claim the blindside berth between now and 2013. His three main rivals are streets ahead of him in terms of Wallaby recognition, with Rocky Elsom, Ben McCalman and Scott Higginbotham all now deeply ensconced in the senior squad.

Elsom is the most established of those figures having been a Wallaby since 2005 and dislodging him will be a massive task for the young pretender. Unfortunately for Jones, even moving ahead of Elsom may not be enough as McCalman and Higginbotham are already hot on the former Leinster hero’s heals. That particular pair have less than three years’ Wallaby experience between them but they appear to be there for the long run.

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Rocky Elsom is Australia's first-choice blindside flanker

The most likely contenders for Jones’ starting spot:

Rocky Elsom – the current incumbent of the Wallaby No6 shirt, Elsom is among the world’s leading back-row forwards. His stunning impact during his solitary season in Europe with Leinster back in 2008/09 means he will he always be held in high regard by the British and Irish. Captain of his country until just before the World Cup, Elsom was relieved of his duties in order to concentrate on recapturing his best form. If he can do that between now and 2013 then Jones will face a tall order to displace him from the starting blindside role.

Scott Higginbotham – one of the standout performers in this year’s Super 15, Higginbotham looks destined to be in the mix for a first XV spot against the Lions. The versatile back row, who is most at home on the blindside, was the Reds’ joint top try scorer in their title-winning campaign and now seems set to have an equally big impact on the international scene. Although he only made his Wallaby debut in November 2010, Higginbotham appears to be one of his country’s coming men and, at 25-years-old, is likely to be in his prime by the time the Lions come calling.

Ben McCalman – a key component of the Wallabies squad since his Test debut just under a year-and-a-half ago, McCalman is already a few steps ahead of Jones in that he has proved his worth in senior rugby despite being just 21 years of age. He may be yet to take the world game by storm but his standing in the Australian squad is clear and it was he who was next in line to join the starting back row when injury prevented David Pocock from featuring in the World Cup fixtures against Ireland and the United States. It’s true that head coach Robbie Deans selected him on the openside flank on those two occasions but it was a clear indication of how highly regarded he is among the Wallaby set up.

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