Captain Alun Wyn Jones inspires Welsh World Cup hopes
Captain Alun Wyn Jones has toiled in the engine room of the Welsh lineup through the Rugby World Cup, playing his essential but unglamorous part in his team's progress to the quarterfinals.
At the start of tournament, when Wales beat Australia to take a commanding role in Pool D, Jones made a record 139th appearance for his country to add a further milestone to an almost unmatched 13-year international career.
In the past decade, as Wales' fortunes have turned upward after a period of decline, Jones has been a motivating power behind his team's success. Against France on Saturday, Wales will again turn to the veteran for inspiration.
"That's just incredible, to play for Wales for 13 years," said fullback Liam Williams, a relative novice who recently notched his 60th test appearance. "I've been here for seven years and it feels like I've been here for ages. It's almost double me.
"He's a great bloke and leads from the front. He speaks well and does his talking on the pitch. He's a leader."
Jones, who has also been captain of the British and Irish Lions, seems a relic of another rugby age. With a receding hairline, the cauliflower ears of a typical second rower, often battered and bruised at the end of matches, he seems unlike most image-conscious modern professionals.
He is dogged and unrelenting, a giant in lineouts and powerful piston driving the Welsh scrum. He carries the ball tirelessly and with more energy when his teammates are tiring.
Jones turned 34 just before Wales' first pool match against Georgia at this World Cup. His energy and enthusiasm, fundamentals of his leadership, remain undimmed.
In an interview with Britain's Independent newspaper at the start of the tournament, Jones referenced Ice Guardians, a Netflix documentary about the "enforcers" of Canada's National Hockey League, as a source of inspiration. Those players suffer an immense physical toll throughout their careers and none emerge unscathed.
"At the end of the documentary, one of the players is asked what they'd do differently if he had his time again and he replies: 'I'd do it all again, I'd just go harder.' I loved that," Jones said.
Welsh rugby has a long and rich heritage. The country's roll call of stars is substantial, but Jones unquestionably takes his place in that pantheon.
"Alun Wyn is going to go down as a legend of the game in Wales," coach Warren Gatland was quoted as saying. "People are going to recognize the contribution he has made to the game and what a competitor he is. How demanding he is of himself and others.
"The bigger the occasion, the bigger the challenge, the more he tends to thrive."
Former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain Ryan Jones said the current captain "is arguably the greatest Welsh rugby player ever.
"History will tell us when he smashes the cap records, and if he lifts a World Cup he's going to be held in the highest esteem of all."