Ireland’s tackling Titan Neve Jones continues cutting down trees in the Six Nations

The 5′ 2″ Ulster hooker was outstanding in the opening game against France with 24 tackles

She’s something else, she really is; all 5′ 2″ and 72kg of her. Invariably the smallest player on the pitch, yet inevitably the player who emerges from games with the biggest tackle count, chopping down players twice her size. When Neve Jones is finished playing rugby, she could presumably go into the tree-cutting business.

The 25-year-old Ulster hooker was at it again last Saturday against France in Le Mans, leading Ireland’s defensive effort with 24 tackles in their Six Nations opener, thus carrying on where she left off last season as the leading tackler in the tournament with 90.

“It’s just a bit of craic, isn’t it? I don’t know, it just kind of comes naturally to me, and something I enjoy,” she says, attempting to play down her remarkable figures.

But, unsurprisingly, it transpires that being introduced to the skill of tackling in her formative years has been key to her fearless and voracious defensive work ethic.

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Jones began playing mini rugby at the age of six in Ballymena before joining Malone when they set up a girls-only team at under-14 level. Ask her whether tackling was something she always relished or was an acquired taste, and she laughs. “Oh wow, that depends who you ask really.”

But then she adds: “No, playing mini-rugby I was the only girl and probably the smallest on the pitch, but it’s nothing that’s ever fazed me.

“I remember my dad taking me out to the garden and teaching me how to tackle and I think that it set me in good stead throughout all of my rugby career. I’ve got to be very thankful for that from the first day that he took me out to teach me to tackle and playing mini-rugby. I didn’t get the ball very often so I thought I’d just crack on with the defence, and I’d say it’s probably quite similar with my game at the minute.”

Her father David and mother Dorothy reared their family of three in Antrim and it also transpires that David was a rugby league player.

“He’s the one that taught me from day one, but I’d say that coaches have refined it, to put it kindly. My dad played league so the tackling would have been slightly different back then.”

It also seemed entirely appropriate that ahead of Ireland’s round two game against Italy this Easter Sunday at the RDS (kick-off 3pm), Jones was speaking to the media alongside the recently appointed new defence coach Declan Danaher. In Jones, he has a willing disciple.

“I love defending, so to see the team go from strength to strength in defence is brilliant. Huge credit to Dec for the work he’s done and will continue to do over the few weeks to keep putting us in the best position as we take to the field. Dec’s come in and done a great job, giving us a system and I think we’ve all taken to it like a duck to water.

“Coming off the back of WXV, we only leaked one try which has been a positive,” added Jones in reference to Ireland’s three wins in WXV 3 over Kazakhstan, Colombia and Spain, last October in Dubai. “We’ve continued to grow off that since then, and hopefully continue to do that over the next six weeks.”

For their part, after beating Ireland 24-7 in Parma last year, Italy were only just edged out by Scotland on points difference atop WXV 2 after wins over Japan (31-17), South Africa (36-18) and USA (30-8).

“Italy are a very exciting side,” said Jones. “They like to keep the ball alive, so that’s really exciting for us to challenge our defence after last week when we put in a really good defensive shift.”

While the defence was, understandably, a huge focus in the build-up to playing France, Ireland will need to achieve more of a balance next Sunday, which could conceivably be trickier in stopping the Italian attack.

But Jones maintained: “I think defence is a huge part of the game regardless of who you’re playing and the same with attack, you’re going to have the ball, you’re not going to have the ball. You’re going to have to be able to switch from one to the other pretty quickly.”

The other area of last Saturday’s opening match which is a key component of Jones’s game, namely the lineout, had its issues, with Ireland losing four of their nine throws.

“Lineout is a huge part of the game nowadays so we have done a lot of analysis on what went wrong at the weekend and how we can fix it. We have had two sessions with the lineout already.

“We have looked at what went wrong and what we can to change that. Having looked at the analysis it should be going well.”

This is the squad’s second season under contracts as well as Jones’s second with Gloucester-Hartbury, and another encouraging aspect of Ireland’s performance in Le Mans was the apparent improvement in fitness levels.

Former player Alison Miller has expressed the view that the players look bigger and stronger this season.

“Yeah, the girls have gotten bigger, stronger, faster,” agreed Jones. “It’s just fantastic to see, to come back and see that they have gone leaps and bounds since we left after WXV and its just pushing us on in the game to grow and be better and more of a challenge for everyone that’s involved. You’re competing for a jersey week in and week out and that’s a good environment to be part of.”

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