Wales have changed their captain so often in recent seasons that Ryan Jones is in his ninth spell in charge. In Rome on Saturday, he is unlikely to be short of expert opinion from some who have been there and done it. One past captain, Gethin Jenkins, is in the team, as many as three more could be on the bench – Alun-Wyn Jones, Matthew Rees and Sam Warburton.
Two more can be found in the English Premiership – Wasps fly-half Stephen Jones and his old Wales half-back partner, Sale scrum-half Dwayne Peel. Another, Duncan Jones, is still to be found in the Ospreys front row where he has been since their creation ten years ago.
Like England, Wales have had 12 captains during the eight years since February 2005. Since then, Wales have played 100 Tests and changed captain no fewer than 42 times, compared to 26 by England over the same period.
Rob Howley’s early announcement of an unchanged team against Italy is to be welcomed as a decisive move. It has not been seen as such in some quarters which only goes to show there is no pleasing some people, a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
These have been trying times for the acting head coach. By giving the starting XV the earliest vote of confidence as due reward for their win in Paris, Howley moved quickly to prevent another
Amazonian rain forest being mutilated to provide the newsprint for a week of speculation over the captaincy.
Warburton is man enough to know the score and able enough to play his way back, injury permitting. His successor has been through the emotional wringer over the captaincy so often that he dare not look ahead to the match after Rome, Scotland at Murrayfield, lest he should find himself back on the bench.
Ryan Jones knows better than anyone that the captaincy does not guarantee selection for the next game. Not so long ago, he went from a winning skipper in one match to the bench for the next but then he has survived a worse experience than that.
As punishment for conceding the late penalty which allowed Fiji to snatch the most honourable of draws in Cardiff three seasons ago, Jones found himself publicly stripped of the captaincy by Warren Gatland. While the head coach had his say, Jones kept a dignified silence.
Since then, Wales turned to him for one-off matches when there was nobody else around. Keeping his team on the straight and narrow to see off a wretched French team last weekend might not have been enough to save Jones from an immediate return to the ranks until Howley decided the time had come to speak up in praise of Jones’ “outstanding leadership”.
That leaves Warburton free to concentrate on reclaiming his place at openside from Justin Tipuric, a task which will be made all the more formidable should Wales keep winning in Rome. More white smoke from the home dressing room ought to ensure that Jones continues to call the shots from his vantage point on the blindside of the back row.
For whatever reason – injury, form or squad rotation – Wales have changed their captain over the last eight years on average once every two-and-a-bit games. When he packs the armband for Italy, Jones will be acutely aware that it’s been on and off as often as England’s bid for the Grand Slam.
He has just had more practice at it than anyone else. Since 2005, Jones’ nine spells as captain contrast with three for Michael Owen, Stephen Jones, Martyn Williams and Matthew Rees; four for Gethin Jenkins, seven for Warburton.