Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

From Abu Dhabi to Japan, via Siberia ... Russia coach Lyn Jones tackles his next adventure at the Rugby World Cup

The former Wales international took a spell out of the professional game in 2009 to take charge of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat. On Friday, his current team kick-off the global tournament against the host nation

Russia head coach Lyn Jones speaking at a press conference in Tokyo, ahead of their Rugby World Cup match against Japan on Friday. AP
Russia head coach Lyn Jones speaking at a press conference in Tokyo, ahead of their Rugby World Cup match against Japan on Friday. AP

In 2009, Lyn Jones arrived in Abu Dhabi to take up his new job in charge of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat.

Fifteen years of coaching at the top of the elite game in Wales had brought him a variety of winners’ medals, and a glowing reputation as a coaching innovator, but had left him feeling mentally fried.

His move to the UAE, to an international school with ambitions in rugby, but – at that point – minimal pedigree for it, was quite the career diversion.

It was much needed, though. He felt jaded by the pressure of the professional game. His batteries needed recharging, away from the spotlight back home in Wales.

And he would happily have stayed here, too. “I wasn’t intent on getting back to the elite game, to be honest,” Jones said.

“I really enjoyed my work in Abu Dhabi. The environment in the school was fantastic. Now, that feeling of pressure is back in my life again.”

He could say that again. On Friday, Jones will send a team out into the breach once more. This time, rather than a school playing field in Abu Dhabi, his charges will be running out at the Tokyo Stadium, in front of a crowd of 50,000, and a television audience of millions.

A decade on from arriving in Abu Dhabi, Jones is now in charge of Russia, who qualified for the Rugby World Cup by default, and will start their campaign against the host nation Japan.

“I am starting to feel the heat again,” Jones said. “I have no idea what is going to happen. Japan have been on a six-year journey to prepare for this competition and this game.

“For Russia, we were granted a place because some nations [Romania, Spain and Belgium, who all fielded ineligible players in qualifying] defaulted, and we have had one year to prepare.

“Pushing four years of work into 12 months comes with a lot of stress. It is challenging.

"I just hope we can be respected for our performance. We want to be in the game with 20 minutes to go, then anything can happen.”

Victory might be an ambitious goal. It would certainly rank up there with his other finest achievements in the game, such as winning international caps for Wales as a player, top-flight titles with Ospreys as a coach – and the Gulf Under 18s Boys competition at the 2010 Dubai Rugby Sevens.

“When BSAK won the Under 18s in Dubai after one year, it was one of my greatest achievements,” Jones said, recalling a time when rugby was in its infancy at BSAK. “How we did that, I don’t know, but we did.”

Lyn Jones with rugby players at the British School Al Khubairat  in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Galen Clarke/The National
Lyn Jones with rugby players at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Galen Clarke/The National

He might still have been here, too, had he not taken the decision to return home in 2011 when his son Luc raised the idea of pursuing his education, as well as his own budding rugby career, back in the UK.

“The biggest reason I departed was family rather than career,” Jones Sr said. “I wanted to stay. But in my time there, I learnt so much about myself, and so much about coaching. I learnt from the PE teachers how to teach young people.

“I remember one morning having a coffee, reading a book, realising that how I felt then was completely different to how I had felt for many, many years. I realised then that I was able to relax again and be myself.”

He may be gripped by the stress of pro competition again now, but Jones is not cowed by what lies ahead.

Which is perhaps no surprise. His CV speaks of someone who is driven by both wanderlust and the love of a challenge.

As a 19 year old, he opted to forego a steady job in a steel company near his home in Wales to go to Apartheid South Africa to play rugby instead.

His career as a coach has included stops in club rugby in Namibia, schools rugby in the UAE, and now with Russia’s national team, a job that incorporates regular commutes to Siberia.

“The challenges lie in the size of the country,” Jones said of his latest posting. “You have two clubs in Siberia who have the most money, and therefore sign the best players.

“That is a four-and-a-half-hour plane journey, with four hours’ time difference between Moscow and there.

“Although it is the same country, you feel like you are in a different part of the world. Six months of the year it snows, and six months is sun.”

The language is another test, although Jones finds positives in that, too. He says speaking through an interpreter means he is more measured in what he says.

Russia coach Lyn Jones, front and centre, wearing sunglasses, and his some of his players with local high school students after a rugby clinic in Saitama, north of Tokyo, on Sunday. AP
Russia coach Lyn Jones, front centre, and his some of his World Cup squad with local high school students after a rugby clinic in Saitama, north of Tokyo, on Sunday. AP

And, anyway, his side’s captain, Vasily Artemyev, can rapidly translate his coach’s instructions. Artemyev was schooled in Ireland, and speaks English as fluently as his native tongue.

Jones says his time in Moscow has totally contrasted with his preconceptions of Russia, “having only known Russia from what gets sold on TV” back at home.

That has been good and bad. While he says he “can’t get over what a lovely place Russia is,” and that he feels more trepidation on the streets of London than he does in Moscow, he says he would not have minded some other stereotypes to ring true.

For example, back-row forward Tagir Gadzhiev is from Dagestan, like UFC superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he was a mixed martial artists and kickboxer before taking up rugby.

That is not an unusual route to the sport for players in Russia. And yet Jones says that one thing holding his team back, surprisingly, is that the players are often too timid for his liking.

“You go to England or Wales and watch or coach rugby, and the competition and rivalry is intense,” Jones said. “They don’t have that in Russia. Everybody is quite good friends. It is surprising, quite the opposite of what we are used to in our countries.

“It drives me crazy, to be honest. I want them to be a little bit more angry and aggressive with each other, but it is not there. I have to respect that.”

Updated: September 19, 2019 10:08 AM

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