After nearly a year away from rugby, Lyn Jones returned to the sport he has lived and breathed all his adult life in September.
Jones, now happily recovered from prostate cancer, is four months into his job as head coach of the Netherlands, a position he held with Russia until he resigned to concentrate on his health.
In addition to three years at the helm with Russia, Jones has coached in Abu Dhabi and Namibia as well as closer to his Neath home in Wales and also in England.
As a package, rugby and travelling are second nature to him.
“It’s always been my life, from an early age. At 20 years of age, I went to South Africa to play for a season, in 1985, and to also find out more about the players who were banned,” he said.
“I always remember my mother saying, go and get it out of your system but it doesn’t do that, it does the opposite, it gets into your system and ever since I have been with passport and suitcase.”
🏆 Details of the new format of the Rugby Europe Championship has been revealed this morning!— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) September 16, 2022
The season's fixtures in the other divisions 22/23 have also been confirmed. ⤵️https://t.co/xre40YXXj7
Taking over from Zane Gardiner, the Welshman has inherited a team that finished rock bottom in their first season back in the second tier of European rugby for two decades.
But the 58-year-old is not one to shy away from a challenge and the chance to get back to doing what he does best, and enjoys, was one he couldn’t turn down.
“Coaching is not easy and every job you take on has its various challenges. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.
“Likewise the Netherlands has its own challenges and positives. When you are in charge, you have got to be motivated yourself to be able to motivate everyone around you, and after my Russia experience, I really couldn’t motivate myself.
“After about five or six months, though, I started to get a bit bored and felt I was ready to get back involved again.
“You can’t help but watch games of rugby and see things, and think, ‘I can help there’. It is something you have done all your life, it’s your passion.”
In a country where almost a fifth of the land is reclaimed from the sea, Netherlands rugby needs strong foundations built on terra firma rather than shifting sand in order to improve and fulfil their strategic plan objective of qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2031.
Pathway to success
Key to that is the Rugby Europe Super Cup, which is made up of representative sides from the region’s test competition structure and is rapidly becoming every bit as essential to the development pathway in Europe as the Superliga Americana de Rugby has been to the success of the likes of Chile and Uruguay.
Financially supported by World Rugby, the Super Cup helps to bridge the gap between domestic club leagues – the Ereklasse, in the case of the Netherlands – and test rugby.
The Netherlands team, the Delta, has struggled for wins in the first two years of the competition, but Jones, who oversaw the most recent campaign in late 2022, believes that buy-in from Ereklasse clubs over player availability, can help the Netherlands improve and, ultimately, be competitive in the Rugby Europe Championship.
“It is a proven vehicle and the starting point for professional rugby within the Netherlands,” he said.
“South American rugby is on the up and it is going to take over the world if we are not careful and don’t keep pace with them. They have been playing in cross-border competitions for four or five years now and all of a sudden, it is not just Argentina that is at the World Cup, it is also Uruguay and Chile.
“I was involved with Russia when we played Chile and I have seen their growth and admired greatly what they have achieved and it can be achieved in Europe as well with countries like the Netherlands but it takes commitment.
“If the Netherlands is going to sit at the big table then you need better players, better coaching and you need a cross-border competition, these are all ingredients for making a successful (rugby) nation. It is not revolutionary, it is an old plan that World Rugby advocates and it has been successful.
“Steve Hansen once said that everybody wants to go to heaven but no one is prepared to die. We all have to give things up as we reach for the top.
“There are a lot of good athletes, a lot of good players in the Netherlands – and some playing abroad – but the structure is still a bit behind time, and we all need to improve on that.”
Delta only won one game in each of the first two seasons of the competition, but Jones has already witnessed its value.
“The first two years have been really difficult for the Netherlands and Belgium in the Super Cup because the commitment hasn’t been there, it hasn’t been organised well and it is all new. But it is improving and I have just done eight weeks with it, in September and October, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
“It was a huge step up for the players who performed in it and, as a result, a lot of them have got into the national team.
“Yes, this competition is about winning but it is also about improving performances. Yes, we lost but we are getting shape in our game now and players are starting to understand the responsibility of their role within the structure and within the game and within the plan.
“We have got 50 good players and in that 50 I have got to find out who are the best players and create a team. That takes time but that is what the Delta is there for, to shortcut a lot of that development. Unless the Dutch clubs buy into Delta, we will end up falling backwards.”
The Netherlands begin the restructured Rugby Europe Championship with a game against Spain, in Madrid on 5 February.
It would be a huge shock if they pulled off a win in what is Jones’ second test in charge, the first having ended in a 37-25 defeat to Canada in Amsterdam in November.
The Netherlands have never beaten Los Leones in 15 attempts and suffered a 43-0 defeat in last season’s competition.
Jones says he is no miracle worker and has called for patience as he attempts to unlock the country’s potential.
“It is well within the realms of Netherlands rugby to be able to compete with the likes of Spain, Portugal, Romania and Georgia, but in the future, not yet. It doesn’t happen overnight, there is a process and a buy-in and a developmental route that belongs to mother nature, you can’t cheat it.
“It is about so much more than a coach coming in. If you can put all the bits together you can produce a competitive side. We have got to get these bits right.
“If you want to be competitive you have to have a strong tight five, Romania and Georgia dominate teams there at this standard. It is about how to maul, defend a maul and how to screw a penalty at the scrum. These nations know how to do it. We don’t have that, we are a little bit naïve but that comes with time.”