MARTIN GILLINGHAM finds out how Huw Jones went from representing UCT in the Varsity Cup to playing Test rugby for Scotland.
The delirious tartan-clad masses who danced themselves drunk down Edinburgh’s Princes Street on the night of 24 February have a fellow from Muizenburg to thank for having set their new hero on the path to Calcutta Cup glory.
Huw Jones’ route from junior rugby obscurity to being regarded among the world’s best centres was, by all standards, a short one. From a green patch locked between the Blue Route and Constantia Village malls to the hallowed turf of Murrayfield in but four short years. Step forward the man who gave the Glasgow and Scotland centre his first break – former False Bay 1st XV coach Kevin Musikanth.
Jones was born in Scotland, with a Welsh name, and educated in England. Yet his talent was spotted, honed and later blossomed in the shadow of Table Mountain – first at False Bay, then UCT and, finally, Newlands.
Having lived in Cape Town for five years Jones had, for a window of 12 months, been eligible to play for the Springboks. Indeed, with the assistance of an online video editing programme, you could probably clip up the gilded moments of this year’s Six Nations, which saw him run on to a pass that floated into his hands as if having been delivered from the gods – actually, it came from flyhalf Finn Russell – and present it, gift-wrapped, to Rassie Erasmus in Plattekloof with the greeting, ‘Here’s one that got away’.
But that might be a little harsh. After all, despite his Western Cape-infused English accent, Jones long ago pledged allegiance to his country of birth.
‘I supported Scotland growing up and had a Scottish flag hanging above my bed since I was 11 or so,’ he says. ‘Even when I was playing for the Stormers I watched the Six Nations, like a fan. I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to play in the same team as guys like Stuart Hogg.”’
Scotland’s win against England in the Six Nations was the most emphatic of Calcutta Cup triumphs; coach Gregor Townsend’s all-court game perfectly orchestrated by the mercurial talents of Russell and Jones’ midfield magnificence. Were there a British & Irish Lions tour this year, Jones’ name would be on the back of the No 13 jersey.
A man who knows a thing or two about centre play has been effusive in his praise.
‘He is not a heavyweight centre in modern terms,’ says Jeremy Guscott, ‘but he has shown that with speed of thought and foot you don’t need to be built like a weightlifter to prosper at this level.’
Jones arrived in Cape Town towards the end of 2012 with the prospect of a professional rugby career no more in mind than as an astronaut. He was just 18 and on what was intended to be a gap year between Millfield – a private school in Somerset famous for being one of the first to take sport seriously and which has been represented at every Olympic Games since 1956, while producing rugby internationals of the calibre of scrumhalf Gareth Edwards – and returning home to go to university.
‘I was a “stooge” at Bishops and had a place at Swansea University to return to the following year,’ he says.
Despite the name, there is no family link with Wales. His father is a headmaster and his family live in Kent to the south-east of London.
Along the way, though, Jones decided to stay on and study at UCT. Soon after touching down in Cape Town he joined False Bay, where he played first for the U20s and then, in 2013, the 1st XV. The club’s coach, Musikanth, was then offered the job at UCT and he invited Jones to follow him.
‘I applied to UCT,’ he says. ‘My visa had run out so I spent two months back in the UK. But I’d gone beyond the point of no return with Swansea so I was gambling everything on UCT. Fortunately, everything worked out.’
The 2014 season saw everything go right for Jones and UCT. In the Varsity Cup final, and with less than six minutes remaining, Ikeys were trailing Pukke 33-15. A remarkable comeback saw UCT narrow the deficit to 33-31 Jones had scored the final’s opening try only for an error virtually at the final whistle to throw away what little chance there had seemed to be of them getting the decisive score. But then came a dramatic twist: Pukke’s missed attempt at a drop goal was followed by almost three minutes of UCT phase play in which all but one of the team touched the ball with the last of them, Nathan Nel, scoring the winning try.
Some time later, in the middle of a young Welshman’s sleepless night, Jones’ life – even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time – was taking another dramatic twist. Back then Gavin Vaughan was the Glasgow Warriors’ video analyst and, for no other reason than he tripped across it as he scoured the web for rugby to watch, found himself in front of a graphic showing Ikeys’ lineup before a rerun of the final. What caught his attention was the saltire alongside Jones’ name.
Vaughan had never heard of Jones. And if Vaughan, a self-confessed rugby geek, didn’t know who he was, you can work on the basis that no one else in Scottish rugby did either.
By then Jones had already made his debut for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup and was just months away from his first game in Super Rugby. Meanwhile, the Warriors had taken note.
‘We kept fairly regular contact after Gavin spotted me,’ Jones says. ‘I was offered a junior contract by Glasgow but at the time I was enjoying Cape Town too much.’
The decision to finally leave Cape Town was made before the 2017 Super Rugby campaign. By then Jones had played three times for Scotland, including a Man of the Match performance in their one-point defeat by Australia in November 2016. He was on the way to becoming a Scotland regular; a Super Rugby career was no longer sustainable.
Even so, his Glasgow debut didn’t come for another 11 months, in December 2017, when his appearance earned top billing for their European Champions Cup clash against a Montpellier side that featured Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein and Bismarck du Plessis.
In a microcosm, in such lofty company, that bitterly cold night in Glasgow demonstrated just how far the Bishops ‘stooge’ had come.
– This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale 21 May.