Up in the sun-drenched stands of Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, one of the great amphitheatres of world rugby, the tension is unbearable.
Only 17 minutes of the second Test of the 2009 British & Irish Lions Tour against South Africa in Pretoria have elapsed but Adam Jones’ parents, June and Alwyn, are about to witness a moment that will transform their son’s status and reputation in the sport.
Down on the pitch, a blistering, pulsating Test match is cranking up another gear. There has already been a controversial yellow card after only 30 seconds for Springboks flanker Schalk Burger and a sparkling Rob Kearney try for the tourists, who still lead 13-5 despite a slick JP Pietersen score for South Africa.
But the Boks are smelling blood. Barrell-shaped full-back Frans Steyn has just dragged Luke Fitzgerald, scrambling to gather a Pietersen kick, over the Lions try-line to give South Africa a five-metre scrum.
It’s a pivotal moment, and Jones knows it. This is what he’s here for. This is why he was picked. This is where the years of toil and fitness torture and dedication to the tighthead’s craft have led him.
‘There was a clear sense of anticipation’
A week ago in Durban, Phil Vickery was wearing the Lions’ number three jersey. The England World Cup winner had endured all manner of indignities opposite Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, South Africa’s new loosehead sensation, and was hauled off after 44 minutes.
Jones came on in his stead and, along with replacement hooker Matthew Rees, helped shore up the Lions scrum. A stirring fightback from 26-7 down had ultimately fallen short though, putting the Boks in the box seat and the series on the line in Pretoria.
The first scrum took 16 minutes to arrive. Jones had forced The Beast to pop up near the touchline on halfway, but South Africa were still able to launch the attack which led to this surge in tension.
“I could hear the atmosphere in the crowd change,” Jones recalls. “People say you can’t hear the crowd, but you can. South Africa were 5m from our line. There was a clear sense of anticipation. ‘Are they going to drive us over? Are we going to hold them?’”
Either side of Jones’ parents in the crowd are sat his wife Nicole and Andy Newman, a hulking 6ft 7in former Ospreys team-mate and friend.
“I didn’t know it at the time but my dad had hold of Andy’s leg. He was so nervous, so on edge. His son was about to go into the biggest scrum of his life. He was gripping Andy’s leg tighter and tighter to the point where he had to say ‘Christ Alwyn, chill out a bit!’
“Then their front row went up, we won the penalty, and suddenly everyone was calm again. But for that moment…’”
The memory has particular poignancy for the Welsh prop idol, given Newman only recounted the tale following the death of Jones’ mother June after a tragic accident at home in 2016.
Jones’ modesty as he describes the scrum that changed his career belies the steely competitive streak of a player who endured plenty of self-doubt and doubters on his journey to this point.
“It was the good old days when you had two packs coming together and smashing into each other,” he said. “I just managed to get a bit lower and get across the seam between (hooker) Bismarck du Plessis and The Beast. Bismarck is a big fella, quite tall. But I had ‘Shawsy’ (lock Simon Shaw) behind me too, who’s a big guy, so I knew if I could get out and stay low and attack the seam between them, testing their bind, there was a decent chance they might pop up. It worked out really well for me.”
South Africa captain John Smit, playing at tighthead, also stood up, the equivalent of a scrum hat-trick for Jones, who was besieged by grateful team-mates. “It was an amazing feeling, getting all the pats on the back, the Lions fans going mad in the crowd…”
‘I knew I could hold my own against him’
Jones, then 28, had already won 56 of his 95 Wales caps, and two of his three Grand Slams, prior to the 2009 Tour. But he only considered himself “second or third choice” heading out to South Africa – Scotland’s Euan Murray was the other tighthead chosen – behind Vickery, a 2001 Test Lion who Jones thought “was way ahead”.
Murray suffered a tour-ending ankle injury on the Tuesday before the first Test, and Jones – in the days when only one prop was included among the replacements – made the bench in Durban. The significance of a first Lions Test start – in South Africa – the following week, as part of the first all-Welsh front row for a Lions Test since 1955, was not lost on this self-declared “rugby nause”.
“I grew up watching Dai Young (the Lions’ Test tighthead in Australia) in 1989, Jason Leonard from 93, and Paul Wallace in 97. I knew it was a huge deal getting picked to start. I just didn’t realise how big a deal would be made of it.”
That came on the Thursday before the second Test when Jones bounced downstairs in the Lions’ hotel for a press conference following the team announcement. His previous chat with the media, before the Sharks game, drew an audience of two. Here, he stared out from under those famous curly locks into a phalanx of television cameras and the faces of “god knows how many journalists”.
Jones was centre of attention, with only one topic in town.
“The Beast was the new kid on the block and had obviously done so well in the first Test. And I was the guy who was going to tame The Beast. All the questions were ‘how are you going to deal with him?’ I quite enjoyed it. I didn’t look at it as pressure; I looked at it as challenge. After the first Test, I thought he was strong but I knew I could hold my own against him.
“At the time I wasn’t outwardly confident, or really outwardly competitive, although you have to be competitive to play at Lions Test level. But inwardly I backed myself to deal with him.”
Starting alongside two of his Wales team-mates (Gethin Jenkins and Rees), with the giant Shaw and Lions captain Paul O’Connell behind him in the scrum, was “a big comfort blanket”. “Then you look at the backs and you’ve got one of the greats in Brian O’Driscoll on your side. And Mike Phillips, who wants to fight everyone and take on the whole South Africa team.”
A few choice words from the feisty Welsh scrum-half, who reached a world-class peak on the Tour, had also been taken to heart.
Jones was ruminating on the size and athleticism of South Africa’s second-row duo Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha at breakfast one morning with a mixture of awe and admiration when Phillips cut in. “He said, ‘Bomb, that’s your problem. You respect them too much. You shouldn’t give a stuff how big they are. You’re as good as them’. His point really resonated. It stuck with me for years to come.”
‘He definitely cleaned me out’
If Jones was not mentally intimidated by the giant Springboks forwards, Botha’s overt physicality in a brutal second half for the Lions left a savagely painful mark.
Leading 16-8 at the interval, and on top in the scrum, the tourists were on course to level the series. But a few minutes after the resumption, Jenkins smashed his cheekbone tackling Bryan Habana and trudged off. By the 45th minute, both Lions props had been invalided out of the contest.
Jones, crouched at the side of a ruck, felt the full force of Botha’s naked aggression as the Boks enforcer slammed into him, and smashed his shoulder clean out of its socket.
“He definitely cleaned me out!” he recalls of the incident that earned Botha a two-week ban for ‘dangerous charging’. “But I never thought Bakkies should have been banned. To be honest, I wasn’t in position quickly enough. I was probably being a bit lazy around the ruck and he caught me in a horrible spot. There wasn’t a lot of counter-rucking at that time – it became a thing after that.
“I was just minding my own business and then this big, bloody 20-stone Afrikaner lights me up! I got the initial hit and if you look at it, I try to have a go back in an aggressive manner, but then I felt my arm and thought, ‘I’m done here. I knew it was gone but all I could hear was Shaun Edwards’ voice in my head saying: ‘You can never be injured on the pitch’.”
Alas for Jones, his tour was over just as it was hitting new heights.
“I grew up watching the Lethal Weapon films and Mel Gibson would put his shoulder back in by hitting it against the door,” he says. “My dad dislocated his shoulder a few years ago when he fell off a ladder and he managed it too – he put his hand underneath his armpit and his arm against the wall. He is old school. But there was nothing going back in that day.”
‘I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t get my head round it’
Jones was given gas and air in the dressing room at Loftus while Lions doctor James Robson and two other medics spent 10 minutes trying to return his shoulder to its rightful place. “It was so painful. Eventually Robbo said ‘Right, we’re going to have to send you to hospital. I was like, ‘Fine, good!’.
He barely remembers getting in the ambulance. So acute was the agony he was given painkillers that knocked him out. Richard Wegyrzyk, one of the Lions masseurs who accompanied him, told him he was “lying on the bed, my arm hanging down the side, with the doctor putting all his body weight on it to jam it back in”.
“It was weird. I was obviously on painkillers but when I woke up later it felt fine.” Jones came round to the sight of Jenkins, Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts – also forced off injured in the second half – and Tommy Bowe, who had nursed an injury to the bitter end – around him in the same ward.
It was only then, with the match long since over, that he discovered the final score. South Africa 28-25 Lions. “I literally couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t get my head round it. It was so strange. When I went off, we were so comfortable, so dominant…”
For those of us fortunate enough to witness one of the all-time great Test matches in the flesh, it still seems incredible. Watching such a mighty Lions performance end in such excruciating, heartbreaking defeat, with the last kick of the game, was beyond cruel.
It is a measure of the man that Jones bears no ill-will towards Botha for ending his Tour in such brutal fashion. He is magnanimous, too, about the victorious Springboks, most of whom had won the World Cup two years earlier.
“There were some great players in that team. Matfield, Bakkies, John Smit, a young Bismarck du Plessis and The Beast (Mtawarira), who are now Boks legends. Pierre Spies, the number eight, was phenomenal at that time, Danie Rossouw… Juan Smith was one of the best blindside flankers I have seen. But I just couldn’t get over the fact we had lost. It was so weird.”
Disbelief at the outcome did little to diminish Jones’ memories of the 2009 expedition, despite being forced to return home by the Ospreys, against his wishes, before the final Test – a thumping 28-9 win for the Lions – so his shoulder could be operated on as soon as possible.
“I would obviously have loved to play the rest of that second Test and the third Test. But I loved the whole trip; it was an amazing experience. You go on a tour like that and you just want to go on the next one. The camaraderie we had was great; everyone got on so well.”
‘There was no doubt then that I was good enough’
Jones has a particular regard for Vickery, the man whose place he took for that momentous second Test. He remembers with affection the Tuesday after the first Test, when the Lions played the Emerging Springboks in heavy rain at Newlands in Cape Town. Jones was 24th man, extra cover in case of any late withdrawals, and was scanning the crowd trying to locate his parents as kick-off approached. Vickery, on bench duty after his first Test trauma three days earlier, offered to help.
“He could have been really down in the dumps and ignored me,” Jones says. “But there he was trying to help me, in the pouring rain, waving and shouting ‘Mrs Jones! Mrs Jones!’ to my mum. I’ve got so much time for Vicks. He really is a top bloke.”
It was Vickery, too, who came into the dressing room after seeing Jones forced off in Pretoria four days later, helping to remove his boots as the doctors tried desperately to force his shoulder back in. One of many silver linings to his first Lions Tour. On returning to the Ospreys, Jonathan Humphreys, then the region’s forwards coach and a big influence on Jones’ career, provided another.
“‘Jones’, he said, ‘getting injured in that second Test is the best thing that could have happened to you’. I am thinking ‘that doesn’t make any sense at all’. He said, ‘Think about it. You came on in that first Test, shored up the scrum and did well. And in the second Test everyone is going to remember when you shoved The Beast and the Boks’ front row into the sky. You’ve got a reputation now. For the next six months you’ll get all the decisions go for you, you’ll have referees on your side.’”
Jones was lauded as one of the best, if not the best, tighthead prop in world rugby. The Tour came amid an “unreal” five-year period in his career from 2008 to 2013 – including a run to a World Cup semi-final with Wales, another Grand Slam, another Six Nations title – and culminated in a key role in the Lions’ first series victory for 16 years in Australia, when he started all three Tests.
But it was those 80 minutes – the last 35 of the first Test, the first 45 of the second – in South Africa that elevated Jones as a rugby player. And a scrum that has entered Lions folklore.
“It clarified to me that I could play at that level,” he added. “When you are playing for the best of the best of four nations, against the Springboks, and you do well and hold your own, it’s the biggest thing you can do really. There was no doubt then that I was good enough. It was massive for me.”