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'You have to take a line' - Stephen Jones on his 'uncompromising' opinions

Stephen Jones, rugby correspondent with The Sunday Times, is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Stephen Jones, this week's guest on Behind the Lines.
Stephen Jones, this week's guest on Behind the Lines.

STEPHEN JONES IS the long-serving rugby correspondent of The Sunday Times, and has been garlanded with awards throughout his career. 

He has won the UK sports journalist of the year award and has twice been UK sports correspondent of the year, along with being a three-time winner of the rugby writer of the year award. His book Endless Winter, meanwhile, was voted sports book of the year in 1993. 

His latest award is entirely dubious: no guest in the esteemed, 66-episode history of our Behind the Lines podcast has earned as many listener questions. 

(Behind the Lines is a weekly podcast exclusive to members of The42, in which we speak at length to a writer about their career and their favourite writing. To gain access to the back catalogue – and the WhatsApp group to submit question to future guests – head to members.the42.ie.

Many of the questions had one unifying theme.

What’s your problem with Ireland? 

Jones has a unique ability to tweak the noses of Irish rugby fans.

Evidence for the prosecution includes: writing that France “gifted” Ireland the championship in the final game of the 2014 Six Nations; writing that Brian O’Driscoll shouldn’t start for the 2009 Lions; and writing that Brian O’Driscoll shouldn’t start for the 2013 Lions.

“Hate-reading his verdicts has been a favourite pursuit of rugby-loving Irish masochists for the past decade and a half, ever since he marked himself out as a wind-up merchant of unusual promise when he referred to Ireland as ‘the smuggest rugby nation’ back during the 2002 Six Nations”, wrote Balls.ie in November 2016.

The context of that article was to point out that Jones was far from one-sided in his assessments of Irish rugby: he had just sang hosannahs to the retiring Paul O’Connell, hailing him as “magnificent” and rating him as one of the finest second rows ever to play the game.But nonetheless, his criticisms do seem to have stuck in the craw of many Irish fans. So what does Jones make of the “anti-Irish” charge? 

“Blimey. At the end of the year, if I was to add up the reaction I’ve had, 20% of it would be ‘You’re anti-Irish’, 20% would be ‘You’re anti-Scottish’, 20% of it would be ‘You’re anti-English’, and ’40% of it would be ‘You’re anti-Welsh.’ 

“I think, now and again, for instance, the Lions: the Irish get too caught up in it and too full of themselves. When Brian O’Driscoll was dropped by Ireland on the Lions tour to Australia, it was obvious it had to happen. I was told by one of the selectors afterwards it was the shortest selection dispute they had on tour. Jonathan Davies was playing so much better than Brian at the time. 

“I remember in the second Test, Brian was put away in space and sort of subsided into the tackle, and made me think he had, maybe temporarily, lost all his greatness.  But the reaction to that made me think, ‘Hang on guys, if you don’t want to be part of the Lions, and think every team should pick Irish icons even past their best, just tell everybody and we’ll have a British team.” 

Jones admits that, on reflection, he was “out of order” when he said Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin should be the 2009 Lions centre pairing, rather than O’Driscoll. “I don’t think he had lost his mojo then (in 2009) but by the Australia tour in 2013 he definitely had. I know the Irish reaction for that one (in 2013) upset the Lions players and the players who were picked in that Test match.

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“Look, the guy was an absolutely unbelievable player. Not many centres can play as well as him and and then also act like a flanker, driving over and score tries.” 

One of the reasons Jones courts scorn from fans is the fact his opinions are usually strident and utterly uncompromising. 

“When you’re the correspondent, it’s a different life: the correspondent in any sport has to take a line. That’s what the correspondent does. Since I first started, the correspondent takes a line on something. If you’re the number one writer on any sport, you have to take a line. 

“Uncompromising is a good adjective. What I hate is when someone is doing a piece and they give both sides. That’s not what a correspondent does. If you’re writing what you think is a verdict on Eddie Jones’ latest mad selection or England’s lucky win or Ireland’s unfortunate defeat, you have to say exactly why you’re saying it. In that instance, I don’t see the need to invent the other side of the argument if I don’t hold it myself.” 

There is much more beyond the above in the interview, as Stephen talks of why he fell in love with rugby and how he started writing about it, and also recommends some of his favourite sports books. To listen in full, subscribe at members.the42.ie.

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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