It was a stranger’s bout of insomnia which brought Huw Jones to live out his Six Nations dream.
The 26-year-old centre’s ascension to the Scotland side did not come via the traditional route. Not for him the story of growing up in his home nation, becoming a club star and eventually breaking into the international game. For Jones, his big break came thanks to a gap year in South Africa which had gone so well he stayed.
Having moved with his family to Kent at the age of two and attended the famous rugby school of Millfield in Somerset, Jones had secured a place at Swansea University but was having second thoughts about higher education when he headed off to do some travelling.
“I never planned to play rugby in South Africa, I was just on a gap year after leaving school,” he told The Courier. “ I was planning to go to Swansea University but my brother, who was already there, said it was rubbish!”
While in South Africa he got a job at Bishop’s school in Cape Town and was introduced to the False Bay club where he paired his school duties with a decent standard of rugby, a level he compared to the Scottish Premiership. When Kevin Musikanth, False Bay’s head coach, took up a role at the University of Cape Town, Jones was encouraged to come along and play for the UCT Ikey Tigers, the university team.
It was playing for Ikey that Jones was spotted completely by chance by Gavin Vaughan, then the Glasgow Warriors analyst but now Scotland’s head of analysis. The Welshman was having trouble sleeping and had opted to look for a game - any game - going on right then on the internet. He came across an Ikey game in the Varsity Cup and noticed the Scottish flag next to Jones’ name.
Vaughan had never come across Jones before, nor had anyone in Scottish rugby. But when he stayed tuned to the Ikey game, he liked what he saw. “He was very exciting and I did some background on him and found that he was born in Edinburgh,” Vaughan told Planet Rugby. “I got in touch and built up the profiles and some data sets around him and have been in contact with him since 2014.” From there, word got around.
Not that Jones was done with South Africa just yet, being called up by the local region Western Province to join their squad for the Vodacom Cup and making such a success of things there that he was brought into the Stormers’ Super Rugby training squad at the start of 2015.
Despite having spent long enough in the country to qualify for the national team on residency grounds, Jones wasn’t about to defect to the Springboks, as he explained to the Rugby Mag.
“I supported Scotland growing up and had a Scottish flag hanging above my bed since I was 11 or so,” he said. “Even when I was playing for the Stormers I watched the Six Nations, like a fan. I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to play in the same team as guys like Stuart Hogg.’”
He had a stop-start 2015 and 2016 seasons in which he found himself more often than not appearing off the bench in Super Rugby. Jones was still on the radar for Scotland though thanks to Vaughan, and he did enough to earn a call-up to the Scotland squad for their summer Test series in Japan in 2016. He made his debut off the bench in Tokyo as Scotland won 21-16.
“I was at training and I got a call from my agent first and then I got a call from Vern Cotter about five minutes later,” Jones said. “I have to say I got a lot more game time for the Stormers after that tour - I didn’t think much had changed in my game over the two weeks but they said that I came back with a lot more confidence.”
It was on Christmas Day 2017, more than three years on from Vaughan's first contact with him, that Glasgow Warriors announced they had snapped up Jones after he’d made the decision to end his stint in South Africa and return to his homeland after more than 20 years away.
At international level it has not necessarily all been smooth sailing, with his two-try heroics against England in 2018 which saw Scotland claim the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years having been tempered last autumn with his omission from the Rugby World Cup squad. He is back as part of the setup for this year’s Six Nations though, with perennial Wooden Spoon side Italy next up after narrow losses to Ireland and England.
But whatever the 2020 Championship and his international career beyond holds for Jones, the saltire will remain about his bed as it has done for the past 15 years. And he’ll always have Vaughan’s sleepless night to thank for his emergence onto the Scotland scene.