He’s the UAE’s most capped rugby international, but proud Welshman Chris Jones-Griffiths reveals he might never have become his adopted nation’s record appearance holder had he been honest with selectors back in 2011.
The 36-year-old had played his whole career until then as a burly back-row forward, but admitted he adapted his game to become a mobile, ball-carrying prop when he went to UAE trials six years ago ahead of the 2011 Asian Five Nations tournament.
It sounds like a calamitous Laurel and Hardy sketch. But not only did Jones-Griffiths adapt, he thrived in the front row.
He made Bruce Birtwistle’s squad that year as the UAE finished third out of five teams, and the North Walian’s international exploits have certainly gone even further north since as he has gone on to appear 23 times in total.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ ‘Mr Versatility’ failed to make Apollo Perelini’s squad that won the Asia Rugby Championship Division II series in 2016, but the veteran was named by the New Zealander in his 28-man squad a few weeks ago and they get their quest for back-to-back promotions underway today.
The UAE open their Division I campaign against hosts Malaysia in Ipoh (kick-off 12:00 UAE time) and despite hoping he can extend his proud record, Jones-Griffiths admits he cares little for milestones with successive titles and possibly even a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup on his and his teammates’ minds.
“It’s never been about setting records for me, it’s just fallen that way, but it’s something to be proud of,” said the Anglessey native.
“I went to trials in 2011 as a back row player, which I’ve always been. And I still count myself as a back-row player. I chanced my arm and went with the front row.
“I got my body in the right shape and was able to perform well, and we finished third that season in the old top division. That was a steep learning curve but I’m glad I did it. It’s added another five or six years on to my rugby career, so it’s great.
“I’m a proud Welshman who never wanted to play for everyone else, but coming out here and having the chance to play international rugby for another country is fantastic. It was beyond my wildest dreams but I think anyone would do anything to earn a cap and luckily I was one of the ones selected.
“I think it will matter to me more when I eventually hang up the boots and look back. It’s not something I thought about at the time, I just thought ‘if I can get the next one (cap) it will be fantastic’ and luckily I got a few more.”
Although his debut experience with the UAE was positive, the next few years were dominated by dark days. The men from the Emirates were relegated from the Five Nations in 2013 and tumbled to Asia Rugby’s third tier in 2014 after losing a play-off to Singapore.
But, under Perelini’s guidance, the national team are on the up, storming into Division I after pummeling both Uzbekistan and Thailand in 2016.
And, Jones-Griffiths believes the good times can continue to roll in Ipoh.
“The first few years with the UAE was very competitive and you were looking over your shoulder,” he said.
“Once you had the shirt you were desperate to keep hold of it. We had a period in the middle where some people would get new jobs and disappear after a few caps. There was me and other guys like Graham Murphy who stuck with it and we came through that period and we’re now on an upward curve.
“In my last involvement in Malaysia (2015), we maintained our status in Division II and then the boys last year did a fantastic job and stormed the competition to get promotion.
“Hands down I think this is the most talented UAE squad I’ve ever been involved with. And I can speak from experience. Looking around at the quality of this squad you can’t take anything for granted and hopefully it will be a really good tour.”
Even though he’s happy to have prolonged his career and might well be eying as many as three more UAE caps in Malaysia – Perelini’s men also face Sri Lanka and the Philippines – Jones-Griffiths admits he will be taking his rugby less seriously after returning from the Far East.
But, having swept the honours domestically with Quins at club level this season – winning a total of five trophies –he’s fired up to finish the campaign on a high note.
“I’ve had a fantastic club season this year. Quins swept the board so you can’t get any better,” he added.
“To be part of a successful national team at the end of the season would be the icing on the cake. It would be fantastic.
“I’m slowing down. I won’t be available, I won’t be prioritising rugby anymore like I have been the last nine seasons. I’ll still be in and out of the club.
“I’ll be doing pre-season and loosely be available for selection but if there’s family in town or a kid’s birthday, I’ll be priortising that over rugby.
With the way the club’s going with their recruitment drive, I don’t think I’ll be needed as much.”