Memories are still fresh of the flight from Cardiff to Dublin a few years ago when the plane successfully landed and a group of well-refreshed Welsh lads at the back offered an enthusiastic round of applause while chanting: “The driver plays for Ebbw, the driver plays for Ebbw, nah-nah-nah-nah.”
It must be stressed there was some doubt over whether the man in question did actually turn out for Ebbw Vale, given that he appeared in his mid-40s and his accent bore not a trace of the Blaenau Gwent region.
But, still, the lads were ecstatic after watching Wales win in the Irish capital and evidently decided to use the pilot as a repository for their joy.
As you do.
Anyway, all this came to mind when Mark Jones flew to New Zealand to start work with the Christchurch-based Crusaders.
Was the ex-Wales wing similarly euphoric as the plane touched down? Did the mid-Walian chant: “The driver plays for Builth Wells, the driver plays for Builth Wells, nah-nah-nah.”
Probably not, but the expectation is he was mightily excited about the prospect of working as a coach with arguably the most successful rugby team outside of the international game.
How did the move come about? What convinced Jones he absolutely had to go for it? What he is expecting to learn?
Rugby correspondent Mark Orders spoke with him about the defence-coach opportunity he just couldn’t turn down…
THE RAZOR EFFECT
A big part of the job’s appeal is the chance to work with the free-thinking, unconventional and history-making Scott Robertson, the first coach to win three Super Rugby titles in a row.
He is the former hod carrier and cement mixer who says he was the worst worker on the building site in Northern Ireland that once employed him.
But the 45-year-old knows how to construct a winning rugby team.
He does so by being prepared to think outside the box, embrace different ideas and dare to do things differently.
“Scott has a unique way of doing things,” says Jones, capped 47 times by Wales between 2001 and 2009.
“He has an open mind about coaching and the coaching mix.
“You hear people talking about others but sometimes you have that bit of scepticism until you see it for yourself. You wonder if so-and-so is as good as people say.
“But with Scott it does stack up.
“He has created a world-class environment and the thing that hits you in the face as soon as you walk through the door is that you are allowed to be yourself.
“You don’t have to say what you think people want to hear; you don’t have to act in a certain way.
“Scott wants you to be who you are.
“For a coach to think like that is a terrific attribute.
“He has a formula that works, with a lot of silverware to show for it, and I’m looking forward to working with him and the other coaches at the Crusaders.”
‘A GREAT OPPORTUNITY’
From the Welsh Premiership to Super Rugby is quite some leap.
But Jones did work with the Scarlets at regional level, helped Wales to the 2013 Six Nations title, did notably well at RGC 1404 and was part of Namibia’s coaching set-up at the recent World Cup. He is a young coach with plenty to offer.
He hopes to take another leap forward while in New Zealand, saying: “Everyone wants to develop in their jobs and I am no different.
“I was in a position where I went straight from playing to coaching at the Scarlets.
“So I went straight into that high-performance environment with the job of trying to improve players, but, ultimately, the role was about winning at the weekend, because clubs are businesses.
“As a young coach you perhaps don’t get much of an opportunity to develop and cut your teeth.
“When I left the Scarlets I made a conscious decision to think about my coaching and build a philosophy. That’s why the RGC experience was so good.
“I was trying to run a performance environment where we were looking to do well in the Premiership, but, ultimately, the job was to improve players.
“It gave me the chance to reassess my coaching and come up with my own ideas on how I like the game to be played and how I like to manage people.
“This is just a great opportunity to return to the high-performance environment and put some of that stuff to the test.
“It would have been easy for me to jump into an assistant-coach role somewhere in England, say, but you’re only ever going to be an assistant if you go down that route.
“I felt I needed to look at things in a different way and expose myself to different ideas.
“I like the idea of constantly trying to improve and sometimes that means taking up different opportunities, working with different people and taking on board fresh opinions.
“It’s a results business and people judge coaches on whether their teams are winning or losing.
“But what I like about the Crusaders is that there’s a big emphasis on getting better and on making people better.
“Results flow from there.”
Former Ireland and Lions Test man Ronan O’Gara spent two seasons with the Crusaders before joining La Rochelle as head coach last summer. Along the way he related how he had previously been a worrier but the experience in New Zealand had seen him acquire a new positivity.
“The Crusaders is like a Formula One team at a pit stop with the efficiency in which it runs,” he has been quoted as saying.
It’s a description that enthuses Jones and he made a point of talking to O’Gara before committing to the move south.
“Ronan said the Crusaders was a huge experience for him and one he found massively beneficial,” he says.
“He thought he’d seen it all, having played 100 or so times for Ireland, but the Crusaders experience opened his eyes.
“It showed him there’s a different way of doing things. That’s what I’m hoping will happen with me.
“I’m hoping to come away thinking: ‘Wow, I’ve just gained a load of fresh information which is going to hold me in good stead for the future’.
“Of course, I want to contribute as much as I can along the way. It has to be a two-way thing.”
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
At the Crusaders, with a defence-coach brief, Jones hopes to apply some of the lessons he learned from Shaun Edwards, arguably the world’s best when it comes to breaking up opposition attacks.
“It would be remiss of me not to do that,” he says.
“There’s a lot of stuff I picked up from Shaun as a player and as a fellow coach when I worked with Wales in 2012-13.
“Some of those things I have already chatted to Scott Robertson about.
“That’s what he likes. He likes a northern hemisphere slant and he likes a mixture to his coaching group. He’s a forward thinker who enjoys talking rugby and exploring different ideas.
“I’m more than comfortable with the defence role.
“I did a bit of it at the Scarlets and with Rotherham and RGC.
“The thing is, although I’m allocated defence with the Crusaders, there’s a lot of cross-pollination whereby the coaches are interactive.
“We’ll be looking across each other’s areas and that appeals to me.
“It’s a very open environment and you are not just responsible for one area.
“If you see something from a counter-attack perspective, they are keen for you to chip in.”
The job on New Zealand’s south island came about after Jones’ representatives at Win Sports Management heard Crusaders had a vacancy and informed them of their man’s availability. Jones went through an interview process, they liked him, he liked them and the job was his.
His family are with him in New Zealand.
“I couldn’t do this without their support,” he says.
“They’ve been brilliant.
“My wife has a settled job in Wales but she’s agreed to come out and go with it for a year or two. I think living in a different country and sampling a different culture will be a great life experience for us all.”
At a time when some are bemoaning the lack of Welsh coaches in prominent positions in the three European leagues, it is refreshing to see one heading to the other side of the world to work and develop.
Steve Tandy did the same after leaving the Ospreys and last term performed notably as defence chief with the Waratahs.
Jones will hope to do the same in his role in New Zealand.
It will be fascinating to see what kind of coach emerges from the experience.
This content was originally published here.