Comparing players to determine “the greatest player of all time” is an exercise fraught with danger. I’ve never seen such a debate end with any winners, only losers all round.
The trouble is that rugby union is a sport in which different positions perform such systematically different roles that deciding whether a second row or a centre is the best player of all time is borderline impossible. You could go round and round for hours without getting anywhere.
Add to that the extra dimension of comparing the modern game with anything from the past being like comparing totally different sports, and you end up with a nightmare scenario whereby no person can justifiably claim that they know who the greatest player of all time is across the sport as a whole, or drilled down into national teams or clubs.
That is until our future AI overlords create some sort of algorithm that can calculate any player’s impact on games relative to the period in which they play, of course. We’ll probably have bigger problems to worry about then though.
What I will say, however, is that I believe Alun Wyn Jones to be the greatest Welshman to ever pull on the famous red jersey.
It’s a big statement, a huge one in fact. It may well have some recency bias attached to it and underline that I’m not particularly old, but to my mind it’s an opinion with a strong basis in fact and with plenty of compelling supporting arguments that honour the retiring lock in the way he deserves.
When the last 17 years of Wales and British & Irish Lions history are reviewed it may not be AWJ that commands a huge amount of highlight reel time. There were few huge tackles, key turnovers, fancy offloads or important tries. Yet he was present and correct for all of the big moments across that time and made his impact in other ways.
Five Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams, four Lions tours with test appearances in all four, two Rugby World Cup semi-finals, captain of his country, captain of the Lions, world record amount of international caps won. The honour roll reads like someone creating a player for a video game and then playing on a much too easy difficulty setting.
It points to the consummate professional that Jones has been throughout his career. That level of durability is almost unheard of in the modern game where test matches come thick and fast, training is relentless and the physicality of games continues to increase at an unsustainable level.
The work ethic set the tone for all of the great Wales and Lions sides over the Swansea man’s career. On the training paddock and then on the playing field, he led by example more than anything else. Without ever having much of a media profile, he became a man that people in this country would follow into battle with no questions asked.
And that’s not to say he wasn’t a great player as well. He was deceptively athletic and had severely underrated handling skills. An adept set piece operator too, he was a modern lock with an old school mindset. Perfect for the role of the talisman at the heart of every forward pack he packed down within.
Alun Wyn Jones was a winner. He rejected the “little old Wales” tag and replaced it with an inner belief that we could win Grand Slams and World Cups, and it is no coincidence that his career happened to take place during an immensely successful period for the national team. The squad was, and is, poorer for losing that mindset.
His legacy is secured and, even as a Cardiff fan talking about an Ospreys man, it was a privilege to see him take to the field and dominate proceedings whenever the opportunity arose. A true giant of Welsh rugby who will be talked about in the same breath as many of those who are mentioned in the futile player debates for years to come.
For me though, Alun Wyn Jones is undoubtedly the greatest Welshman to play the game.