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'He'll not like me saying it': Greg Jones determined to hold close friend out of Ulster line-up

 

Meaning business: Greg Jones wants to build on his first try
Meaning business: Greg Jones wants to build on his first try

By Michael Sadlier

It was late last Friday morning when Greg Jones' phone lit up with Dan McFarland's name.

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As he had been selected to do bench duty for Ulster's clash with the Ospreys, the 23-year-old Dubliner knew that something untoward had happened, which probably meant he was starting.

The back-rower wasn't wrong. Except this call wasn't about stepping up due to illness, or an unexpected injury, as his coach explained that Jordi Murphy would have to sit the game out as another phone had lit up with a message from Japan that Ulster's original starter might be required to get on a plane.

It meant a rare start for Jones and a few hours to get his head round his change of fortune.

"Dan gave me a call, I think it was about 11 on the Friday morning, and told me that Jordi might be heading out to Japan, so that was great for him and great for me too," explained the former Ireland Under-20s player who moved north to join Ulster's Academy in 2017.

"I had a good bit of time to mull it over and when you're subbing for the back-row you have three different positions to potentially cover, so I'd got some great prep early in the week and I felt like I was ready to step in."

Just as well, really, as Jones was then handed the No.8 shirt, a position he hadn't had much exposure to before at this level. It was just something else to intrude on his pre-match thoughts and nerves.

"I had a bit of experience there as I played a lot of eight at school and then at club level at Banbridge and then before that at UCD, so it wasn't a drastic change," he explained.

Anyway, if his nerves were slightly on the shredded side come kick-off, they didn't intrude on his performance with only his third 80-minute effort in an Ulster shirt since his debut off the bench in November 2017 at Benetton also yielding his first ever competitive try.

"I scored one in the first warm-up game (against Glasgow) but those don't really count as much, though I'll count it anyway," he said.

"It was great to get a try as well because they don't come around very often.

"You could probably tell pretty easily that was my first try because I was grinning like a (Cheshire) Cat getting up with the ball.

"I actually wasn't sure what to do, but it was nice."

It was also an important moment in the game with the Ospreys as Jones' 30th-minute drive over the line put Ulster in the lead for the first time and gave them some much-needed belief to push on.

Much more will be needed on Saturday when they meet the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, presumably with Ruan Pienaar, who was last weekend's man of the match as the South Africans swept Glasgow aside at the Toyota Stadium.

"It will be a very different challenge," said Jones, who will hope to add to his 12 Ulster appearances on the two-game trip.

"They're quite different to the Ospreys in terms of, I would imagine, taking a lot of quick taps and quick throw-ins.

"I would expect that they would constantly try and up the tempo of the game.

"We know it will be a very different challenge, a massive challenge."

He was in South Africa last season when Ulster took on the Southern Kings first before heading up to play the Cheetahs at altitude - they finished the mini-tour unbeaten - but only had a watching brief.

As Jones explained: "I didn't get a minute as I was 24th man for both games.

"It was tough, yeah. I did a bit of fitness in Bloemfontein the last time, so at least I got to experience the altitude conditions a bit, and I tell you that was tough as well."

For Jones, who in 2016 played in the Ireland Under-20s side along with James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale which lost the World Cup final to hosts England, this season has to be about making a more significant mark.

"Going into the season, I guess I teed up a goal of getting involved in games at the start," he said.

"If I can get myself involved in squads and try and perform well when given the chance, that's all you can really ask for.

"Hopefully they (those chances) will come, but all I can keep doing is performing when given the chance."

His current opportunity has not only arrived because Murphy has had to join the Irish squad in Japan, but also as his close friend and fellow Dubliner Nick Timoney is unavailable due to a hand injury.

Though Timoney is, apparently, rehabbing well, Jones will, at some point, probably have to try and keep his friend out of consideration for the squad. True or not?

"He'll not like me saying it, but yeah," he added.

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