It all hit Alun Wyn Jones in the abandoned departure lounge at Heathrow Airport. Closed restaurants, empty baggage belts and a last-minute ticket to South Africa. Once his flight came off the runway, the dream was on again.
“It was a bit surreal in Terminal Five,” the Lions skipper told Sportsmail, as he reflects on his miraculous three-week comeback from the dislocated shoulder he sustained against Japan during a warm-up match for the tour in Murrayfield.
Surreal is the word that keeps coming to my mind. There I was, back in Terminal Five, about to fly to South Africa with four bags and a boarding pass. It was strange. You couldn’t really write it.’
Alun Wyn Jones has begun his remarkable recovery from a dislocated shoulder
Yet it all started with so much hope when he stood in line at Murrayfield.
“For some of us, that game in Japan was the first time in 18 months that we played in front of an audience.
“You realized how much you’d missed those fans when you were running out. I had the whole build up, but it was obviously very short lived. Seven minutes. For many people it was in every way.
“Of course there were some expletives. It all happened very quickly, from impact to being seen from the side. You hope for the best, but it clearly wasn’t ideal. When I talk about it now, it feels like I’m talking about someone else. It can be a strange old game at times.
“The goals, timelines, destinations changed within seconds. Me and Justin Tipuric were at an airport flying from Edinburgh to Wales when we should have gone from Edinburgh to South Africa. Justin was on his iPad with his headphones showing what my business was like!
“It has gone so fast. It felt like a click with a finger. There wasn’t much to say. It was very surreal for all the wrong reasons.’
The Welshman’s entry into the Lions’ tour appeared to be over after he suffered the injury at Murrayfield in June
But Jones went through an intensive rehabilitation program to recover in just three weeks
Back home in Swansea, Jones’ wife, Anwen, and daughters, Mali and Efa, waited for him with open arms. Home comfort and a few big hugs to ease the pain of years of hard work. A dream shattered by an innocent collision on a ruck.
“I was back home on the couch on Sunday before the boys got to the airport,” he recalls. “My oldest was a little shocked because we had instilled in her that Daddy would be gone for a long time. She’s more turned on than I realized! Two weeks, one game and Daddy was home… but then Daddy left again.’
In between, for 17 days, Jones tapped into the deepest vaults of grit and determination. Two weeks of intensive rehabilitation.
Others may have thrown in the towel and settled in at home with their young family for a summer, but Jones isn’t the type to kick stones around the beaches of Mumbles.
“It took me a few days to see the consultant on Tuesday,” he adds. “He said there was a chance I could play another part. Selection was something else, but he said if I could get through the hoops I needed, I could perform. I tried not to dwell on it and continued the next day.”
The Lions arranged for a salvage room to be sent to Jones’ address. However, by the time it arrived, he had already bought his own. He was driven by the memories of watching his own Lions heroes as a child, from Swansea beating Neath in the Schweppes Cup final to skipping school classes to see Neil Jenkins on tour in 1997.
“On the way back from the consultant, I was on the phone to get everything I needed. I didn’t want to bother the guys here because they were getting ready for a game. The doctor was clear about what I needed to achieve. I initially trained alone and did my first session on the bike on Wednesday, while we formulated a plan.
“I was in constant contact with the strength and conditioning guys and we came up with a pretty sharp plan together as soon as I knew there was a shot.
The 35-year-old played in the first Test on Saturday, in which the Lions took a 22-17 win
“I just hammered at it with everything I could, which I think is pretty easy. I like to think that someone else on this squad would have done the same. It was pretty flat, but that was my focus.
“Thanks to the Ospreys for taking care of many returning boys and not expecting them to have an extra body. It means a lot what Chris Towers and the medical team there have done for me.
“It started on the bike, but I threw that away pretty quickly and scared the physios. I shaved days off here and there. We didn’t take any shortcuts, but we were aggressive with the program.
“It was a bit of a risk, but everything I could shave off brought that timeline a little bit forward. I was against it, so I had to.
“Without getting too deep, the quality of this squad – the players and the people – is something you want to be a part of. I wanted to give myself every chance to come back here. Obviously it’s the Lions so I knew what was at stake. It was surreal, but it’s what I’ve always done. Don’t get me wrong, I have my shortcomings, but hard work is not one of them.’
Not a stone was left untapped. Jones even canceled his daughters’ swimming and ballet classes to reduce the risk of her bringing Covid into her home. Fittingly, he dedicated his first Test jersey to his girls.
“My wife was aware of the risk of being pinged on track and trace,” said Jones, Vodafone ambassador. “We actually kind of locked down those two weeks to make sure I didn’t get pinged. My family has been very supportive of me. The girls got out of their swimming lessons and a few extracurriculars.
Jones said the Lions have the momentum but know South Africa will fight in the second Test
“They helped Dad more than they realized. I owe them some ice cream when I get home! I know it’s only a small thing, but these are the sacrifices your family makes when they are playing sports, whether they know it or not. It’s funny, when you have a family it increases motivation because they can see that you want to do it for them.’
Back in Swansea they will be watching TV with pride. Remarkably, their father managed to put in an 80-minute performance on Saturday as the Lions opened the series with a win. One down, two more to go.
“As Warren Gatland said, everything was aimed at making myself available for selection. Then you go from there. I’ve worked hard to get there and I’m just going to continue on the same footing. I like to think I did that on Saturday. To take the win and the momentum is huge, but we are fully aware that South Africa will be a different animal in the second test.
“Everyone is eagerly waiting for the selection, ready to get to work.”
Alun-Wyn Jones is an Official Vodafone Ambassador for the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa.
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