x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rugby director takes over elite British club

Former Abu Dhabi school rugby coach Lyn Jones talks about his move to one of the proudest names in the game, London Welsh RFC.

Lyn Jones, the former director of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, at the London Welsh rugby club's ground in south-west London. Stephen Lock for The National
Lyn Jones, the former director of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, at the London Welsh rugby club's ground in south-west London. Stephen Lock for The National

For much of the past two years, Lyn Jones and I have walked the same touchlines of the capital's sporting fields, albeit in vastly different capacities: he as the director of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat (BSAK) in Abu Dhabi, me as an occasionally over-agitated parent supporting one of the players in his charge. Not anymore.

Jones left the school and the Emirates in June to take up a role as head coach at London Welsh RFC, one of the proudest names in northern hemisphere rugby. Founded in October 1885, the club once operated as a production line for the Welsh international team. Indeed, 126 of their players have pulled on the red shirt of Wales in the club's 126-year history.

Today, London Welsh sit in the second tier of the English professional rugby union system, but have designs on promotion to the Aviva Premiership, the so-called promised land of rugby in England, with its lucrative sponsorship agreements, big-box office crowds and lavish TV deals. The appointment of Jones is clearly central to realising that dream.

London Welsh are based in a well-to-do suburb of England's capital, their ground sandwiched between the majesty of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and the serial shopping attractions of Richmond's busy high street. Oddly though, for all its million-pound houses and charming side streets, this part of London is as much a point of departure as it is one of arrival.

The area is situated directly below the flight path into and out of London's Heathrow airport, and passenger planes rumble noisily overhead more or less every minute of the day. It is then, a rather appropriate location given the club's illustrious history and its ambitious plans for the future.

And here is Jones, greeting me on a typically blustery and chilly summer day in London. This all seems a long way from the last time we met, outside the school on a hot June evening a few hours after he had made public his intention to leave the Emirates.

As we settle down for a chat in one of the row of cosy cafes that line the leafy streets a short distance from the ground, I ask him if he has been able to take stock of his all too brief time in the UAE, or is it the lot of the professional coach to be always looking forward, preparing for the next challenge, rather than raking over the past?

"Part of me feels I left prematurely," he says. "I was enjoying what I was doing and things were really developing well. The school was extremely supportive and I miss the friends I made during my time in the emirates.

"Abu Dhabi was," he says, "a great opportunity for me. It gave me the chance to put into place a programme to develop and create good-quality rugby players.

"Not everyone is going to be blessed with the potential to play professional rugby. But [school sport] isn't about that. It's about inspiring, playing and simply learning to enjoy the game."

At any level, coaching is, he adds, simply about making players the best they can be, at whatever standard they play at. "I don't think you need to go too far outside of that."

The opportunity in Abu Dhabi arrived at an interesting moment in Jones' career. A former international, he represented Wales five times before he retired. Modestly, he refers to these appearances as "a short period when I was fortunate enough to pull on an international shirt".

Coaching followed retirement, and with it came a trophy-laden period in charge of Ospreys, a big name in the Celtic league, where he won two titles and the Anglo-Welsh Cup between 2003 and 2008. From there he enjoyed a brief stint as an assistant coach at Newport Gwent Dragons before BSAK came knocking.

His time at Ospreys had worn him out, he says, candidly, the demands of coaching at the highest level leaving him temporarily bereft. "As a coach and as a player in the professional game you have to have an ego, you need to feel that ego. Mine was empty [at that time], I'd had enough."

This is an admission that seems at odds with the man who arrived on these shores in September 2009. He didn't present like a man who'd "had enough". Indeed, his near relentless enthusiasm helped land silverware for the school's representative teams, most notably BSAK's U18 side, who won a fiercely fought tournament in front of a capacity crowd at the Dubai Sevens weekend last December.

His time in Abu Dhabi was, according to Jones, "something I'd like to think I could do again, although I'm not saying the opportunity would ever arise."

And then the challenge at London Welsh presented itself.

"To be the best you can be as a coach, you need to keep moving and keep evolving. I just wanted to do that.

"It is a lovely club and a lovely place to play rugby," he says, as another plane rumbles overhead, punctuating an otherwise idyllic scene, "and I want to help this club move forward."

To realise its potential, he believes the club must reconcile its past with its future.

"It is important to know where you've come from, without it you don't know where you are going. So I think the club needs to appreciate what has been good in the past but understand what it stands for now."

The goal is to get to the top-flight, although "it will be very difficult to get there and even harder to stay there".

Nevertheless, the season has started well enough, with victories in London Welsh's opening two league matches against Leeds Carnegie and Plymouth Albion.

Our conversation takes place a few days before the start of the rugby season in the Emirates - the capital's largest club, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, returned its juniors to full training last night after the long and hot summer sojourn - and little more than a week before the Rugby World Cup kicked off in New Zealand.

Since then, the Welsh national side have managed to run South Africa, the defending champions, ragged in a thrilling World Cup match last Sunday, before being narrowly squeezed out by the Boks in the dying minutes of the game.

The result confirms Jones' belief that this year's tournament will be the most "closely contested for some time". He identifies England and the big three of the southern hemisphere - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - as the obvious main contenders for glory.

"If I had to put a finger on somebody, then it would be New Zealand. I think they deserve to win, and I hope they do."

Victors in the first World Cup, but unable to repeat this triumph since, the All Blacks are, like all those passenger planes circling over our heads in south-west London, stuck somewhere between the point of departure and arrival. Only a win in the tournament's final in Auckland on October 23 will bring that long journey to an end.