As Northampton Saints duo Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes prepare to face off with Japan in the British & Irish Lions' opener on Saturday afternoon, Club Historian Graham McKechnie takes a look back at the life of Bobby Jones – Saints' "Japanese" fly-half.
Bobby Jones was Saints’ first Wales international, a fly-half-day like his modern-day successor Dan Biggar. Diminutive in stature, he was said to be very quick from a standing start – spotting gaps in defences and darting through. You can see how small he is from the few existing match photos – playing for Wales and the East Midlands in the 1920s. Even other backs tower above the dark-haired half-back.
You couldn’t get a more Welsh name than Jones could you? But his background is far more cosmopolitan than his name suggests. Two countries, England and Wales, battled over his services and for a third – Japan – he is an important figure in their rugby history but almost entirely forgotten.
Bobby Jones was born in Shanghai in 1900. His father was a diplomat – a Welshman who worked in the British Embassy. In the 1890s he was based in Tokyo and it was there, at an embassy party, that he was introduced to his future wife. After they were married, Jones senior was transferred to the British embassy in Shanghai, which was where Bobby was born and where he was to spend much of his childhood.
He attended Thomas Hanbury School in Shanghai from the age of nine but in 1916 he left home and was sent to board at Bedford School. Jones spent three successful years at the school, winning his colours for rugby and swimming and passing the London University Matriculation exams to attend the City and Guilds Engineering Institute in London.
Rugby was playing an increasingly important part in Jones’ life. While studying engineering he joined Richmond, playing regularly for them at fly-half with his older brother Harry on the wing. A job with Northampton Borough took him back to the midlands and to Franklin’s Gardens, where he made his debut for Saints in 1922.
Jones was an immediate success at Saints. In his first season he top-scored with 13 tries, showing “exceptional skill”. Although slight in stature, he was very quick and nimble, scoring an unusually high number of tries as a fly-half due to his exceptional ability to “see and seize an opening”. By 1924 there were growing rumbles in the Northampton newspapers that Jones should be considered for England. He really came to national prominence after the East Midlands met New Zealand in December 1924 at the County Ground in Northampton. Despite a 31-7 defeat, “Japanese” Jones (as the newspapers sometimes called him) excelled. It was a game the Northampton Mercury reporter said that Jones would never forget – scoring a try out wide to give the East Midlands an early lead, then dropping a goal from 30 yards in the second half.
A year later and international honours did indeed come to Jones, but not before a tug-of-war over his services. Japan, of course, was not an option for him. It was England who came calling first, with Jones being selected for the Possibles against the Probables at Bath in December 1925. Jones had a great game, switching sides half way through. The Times described him as the “most brilliant, attacking player on the field”; Sporting Life said he was a “genius in the art of cutting through, he was into his running stride in a flash, he held and gave his passes with certainty”. The praise was uniform for Bobby Jones, which made his omission from the final trial at Twickenham a week later all the more baffling. In Northampton there was outrage.
Wales wasted no time to seize their opportunity. He was immediately picked to play for the Probables in their trial match in Cardiff and then for Wales to face England on 16 January 1926. There were howls of protest on both sides of the Severn – not for the first time the question of eligibility was raised and debated in the papers. Jones himself had little to say, telling the Western Mail:
"My father’s a Welshman, my English qualification is by my having learned the game in England and by my playing for English teams. Whether or not such qualification should be annulled or amended is a matter for the Unions.”Bobby Jones, speaking in 1926
There was no mention of the fact that China was the country of his birth or that his mother was Japanese.
Jones made his international debut in Cardiff in a controversial 3-3 draw. Three weeks later Wales lost to Scotland at Inverleith. He went into that game having scored five tries for Northampton against Batley and although he told reporters he felt he had had a good game against Scotland, he was left out for their next game against Ireland. One more cap was to follow for Jones – against France in Paris in April. He almost missed the match due to a high temperature. Perhaps he wished he had – Wales won a rather dull game 7-5 with Jones which impressed few critics.
Bobby Jones may not have graced the international stage again, but his Saints career continued with great success. Having been vice-captain to the great England forward Freddie Blakiston in the 1925/26 season, Jones was given the captaincy the following year. He continued playing for another five seasons, making a total of 231 appearances for Saints, scoring 74 tries and dropping 12 goals. And he continued to play for the East Midlands regularly alongside Saints.
After rugby Jones continued to work as an engineer all his life, for among others Parnall Aircraft and Avery Scales. He married Lilian Atterbury in 1921 and had two children – Robert and Myrtle. His granddaughter Gina remembers him as a well-to-do, lovely man.
Bobby Jones died in 1970 and should not be forgotten for his achievements in the East Midlands, for Wales and perhaps also in Japan. He may not have seen himself as a pioneer, but that’s surely how this diminutive, smiling fly-half should be remembered.