Very few athletes are capable of playing sport at an elite level. A much smaller number are talented enough to do it in two different sports. Then, as Joe Towns reports, there’s a tiny group into which we could soon be placing Nia Jones.
“So, a couple of months ago a very cool company named @CrossCodersCo reached out and encouraged me to apply for their brand new Global programme designed to discover a new Aussie Rules star . . . ” tweeted Nia Jones, to her 4,000 followers this week, as she boarded a flight to Australia for the second time this year.
Last time it was for the Commonwealth Games. This time, it’s a whole new ball game.
There was a period when switching codes in Wales meant “going north” -exchanging rugby union for rugby league. Not anymore.
Double International Jones, who up until this week had barely taken a punt at an oval ball, is “going south!”
Big Day Testing today at Victoria University for the 18 International Rookie Hopefuls @CrossCodersCo Camp. Under the watchful eye of multiple AFLW Coaches the girls impressed! Reaching New Heights! @AFLIrelandWomen @Irish_Banshees #AWholeNewBallGame pic.twitter.com/teOGh8fKi6
— Footy Architect (@curranem) September 24, 2018
She has form though. She’s already switched sports once, and actually made a career of switching. FAW Young Player of the Year in 2011, a Welsh senior international in both football and netball before she had finished her university degree at Cardiff Met, Jones signed a semi-professional contract with Reading in 2015.
She committed to another for Yeovil Town Ladies in 2017, before choosing to put her footy career on hold to focus on netball, moving over to the Celtic Dragons for a season in the Vitality Super League and then representing Wales at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Some eye-catching performances at the Games drew rave reviews and it was in Australia where the seed for her latest switch was planted.
Cross Coders, an organisation partly funded by the AFLW – the body responsible for Australian Rules football for women – was established to help Aussie Rules franchises identify and recruit the best female footballers in the world to come and join their league.
“A global program that provides top female athletes a once in a lifetime opportunity to become a professional in Australia’s premier football league,” proclaims the website.
Cross Coders approached Nia after seeing her light up the Gold Coast Games where her tenacious play and all-court game caught the attention of many.
“I just thought they were being polite!” says Nia. “They said that they’d been following my sporting ventures on social media and thought I’d be a good candidate for the programme!
“I read through the website, filled in the application and just thought nothing of it!”
Some of Jones’ highlights from the Games had gone viral. Diving out of court after lost causes, throwing outrageous passes, and at one point “flossing” during a break in play.
Nia coaches Cardiff Met’s netball team in her spare time but she won’t be there for training this week. She will be in Australia trying out for an AFL contract.
So Nia. Yet so far away.
Jones is currently taking part in a one week intensive rookie camp along with 18 female athletes from around the world, competing for a professional contract in the AFLW.
— Nia Jones (@niajones92) September 1, 2018
The camp runs from Sept 22 to Sept 28. The successful rookie will be named on Sept 29th and will be offered a one-season contract from November to March. It’s like the Apprentice for AFL.
Jones has been looking at her competitors online.
“They all look like fantastic athletes who I’m sure will bring lots of different skills and personalities to the camp. Some have AFL experience and lots of them are Irish Gaelic footballers, which is relatively similar to Aussie Rules, but as we know CrossCoders aren’t looking for a finished article so I’m sure all our various strengths will make for a great few training sessions.”
Speaking to the AFL England website Jones admitted “I’m a complete novice at Aussie Rules. But I know I can run, kick and catch so I’ll just see how I go. I’m sure whatever happens the experience in itself will make me a better athlete.”
Jones is an exceptional athlete. But she’s more than that.
She is a personality with an online brand (almost 8000 followers across Twitter and Instagram) and that might appeal to the Aussies when they come to make their decision.
When BBC Sport brought the Match of The Day cameras to Newport last month to broadcast the biggest game in Welsh women’s football history live to the nation, it was Jones who they booked as their lead pundit, standing alongside presenter Gabby Logan.
Big thanks for every well wish! I’ve stored them all in my little head ready for my first solo plane journey Usually I have a herd of Red teammates to follow and a manager picking up things I may have dropped on the floor See you soon @CrossCodersCo ➡️ pic.twitter.com/6lLvDva2rA
— Nia Jones (@niajones92) September 20, 2018
A week later and Jones was on the sofa with Nathan Blake analysing Wales men’s loss to Denmark in the BBC Wales studio.
Ok, so she’s a totally boss footballer, an ace netballer and a tidy TV pundit with a sizeable online following. But has she got what it takes to make it Down Under in one of the toughest sports in the world?
Can she do it on a rainy Tuesday night in Townsville? Let’s see.
Fast? Yes. Jones is known in netball for her intercepts. She literally arrives out of nowhere.
Fit? Extremely. You can’t be a double International without a decent engine. The strength and conditioning team at Cardiff Met, where she regularly trains, say she’s a phenomenon.
Physical? Yep, very. Jones has hustle, she keeps it 100, plays netball on the edge of the law and her gym stats are frightening.
Good hands? Lightning . . . she’s an international netballer, in a ball-playing/ playmaker role, renowned for her pinpoint long range passing.
Good feet? Absolutely. Elite netball favours sharp footedness, international football demands it.
— Nia Jones (@niajones92) September 10, 2018
Jones can dance, but her ability to mark a high ball in the centre of an Aussie Rules oval is unknown.
But she definitely has the bravery. Anyone who saw her play football for Wales will know she is committed in a 50-50. She will not take a backward step.
The warrior from Wrexham is already one of Wales’ great sportswomen.
Are the Aussies ready for her thunder Down Under? Can they keep up with our Jones?
If she cracks their code, she would be the first Welsh person ever to play in the AFL.
The last Welsh sportsperson to make a lasting impact on Australian soil was Jonathan Davies when he went to play rugby league out there in 1991. Nia Jones wasn’t even born then.
— #PJVFL / #SwisseVFLW (@VFL) September 18, 2018
Jones’ flight to Melbourne went from Cardiff to Dublin to Dubai with an emergency stop in Sri Lanka for a passenger needing medical attention. Quite a journey.
But her lifetime journey has already been remarkable. She doesn’t take the simple route.
Most of us would dream to taste top flight action in just one sport. For Jones, this could be sport number three.
She has cleaned up her old football boots and once again she is ready to lace up and play ball. Whatever shape or code.
Pob Lwc, Nia.