ASM Clermont Auvergne captain and star Test wing Aurelien Rougerie says adopted Welshman Stephen Jones will give the French club a fighting chance in the Heineken Cup's "Pool of Death".
Clermont have drawn double European champions Leicester Tigers, French heavyweights Stade Français Paris and Celtic League champions Ospreys, but Rougerie says the arrival of Jones last season has turned the also-rans of French rugby into European contenders.
Clermont begin their Cup campaign at Leicester Tigers on Saturday with Jones having already rattled up 550 points for Llanelli Scarlets in the tournament and just two appearances short of joining the ERC Elite Awards 50 club.
Rougerie, the strapping 6ft 4in winger with 15 Test tries to his name, said Jones was almost single-handedly responsible for Clermont's return to the top ranks.
"He has emerged as a natural leader," Rougerie said. "He plays a specialist role at fly-half, so he had to be decisive from the outset. He has been a very positive influence on the pitch because of his rugby talent, but also because of his influence on team morale, particularly at the start of last season when we were not getting the expected results. "It's largely thanks to Stephen that we kept our heads up and finished the season in style. And we're looking forward to taking on the big teams this season - I know Stephen is looking forward to playing the Ospreys.
"Stephen is a fantastic guy, always joking, full of life, happy, great to be around and who never sulks. What's more - he made himself comfortable without us having to make all the effort - he made sure of his place in the club himself. He's a pleasure to spend time with.
"I have really been impressed by his integration into the team. He's actually very humble but his playing and personal qualities often put him at the forefront of things even though he doesn't push for position or recognition.
"Stephen seems to be happy at Clermont. We have all done everything we can to make him feel at home. We have even taken him on guided tours and shown him the places to visit - and those to avoid!
"He is always very friendly and accessible for the fans before and after games - regardless of the result. The supporters love him for it."
Jones went to Clermont with a reputation as an ace goal-kicker and backline organiser, but Rougerie has been impressed by his running game. "Stephen's strongest asset on the pitch is his skill with ball in hand. He always attacks the gain line. He has a great kicking game, too, whether it's clearance kicking, looking for touch or drop-outs. "Since he arrived, I think Stephen has progressed as a player and helped us progress as a team. We are a very close-knit team, both on and off the pitch and Stephen fits in very well with the group. We have Argentinians, Georgians, a South African, an Italian, a Welshman … we all mix in together and there are no cliques. With a mix like this, you would have to be stupid not to benefit from this. Stephen has certainly added to this experience for us."
As part of the build-up to next month's Cardiff 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals weekend, ERC has joined forces with the WRU, Cardiff Blues and adidas to develop an annual grassroots community rugby programme targeting young players.
The Ulster Rugby full back, Jared Payne (No 15), has been suspended for two (2) weeks following an independent Disciplinary Hearing in Dublin arising from the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Saracens at Ravenhill Stadium on Saturday, 5 April.