Springboks assistant coach Felix Jones. Billy Stickland/INPHO
Irish Abroad

'I could just say that I am really grateful. It has been incredible'

Ex-Ireland fullback Felix Jones is in his final week with the Springboks as they try to win the World Cup again.

THERE’S BEEN NO mistaking how heartfelt the Springboks have been in recent weeks when asked about the impact Felix Jones has had on them and how much they’re going to miss him.

This is Jones’ last week as their assistant coach. Still only 36, he is heading into his second World Cup final with the Boks. They’re all hoping to bring the trophy back to South Africa again next week, but Jones will soon be moving on to the next chapter of his coaching career as an assistant to Steve Borthwick with England.

So it was easy to understand the little flickers of emotion he showed today when talking about this remarkable journey, one he could scarcely have imagined while growing up in Killiney, Dublin.

Jones has put in a huge shift for the Springboks since joining Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber in 2019, rekindling their relationship from Munster. The Irishman has spent long periods away from his family back home, as well as countless hours analysing, preparing, and detailing plans that have made the Springboks better.

And yet, he feels like he’s the one who should be saying thanks. Jones finds it hard to sum up what all of this has meant to him, but he lands on that point.

“I could just say that I am really grateful,” says Jones.

“I have a lot of gratitude to not only the management but the players as well and the people behind the scenes. The greater rugby community in South Africa, the franchises, the coaches there have welcomed me. It has been incredible.”

The Boks are thankful too. Erasmus paid glowing tribute to Jones last week, while experienced fullback Willie le Roux joined in today.

“His work ethic,” said le Roux of what stands out about Jones. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without his laptop! It’s the way he works, how he talks to us, how he’s involved. He’s an unbelievable coach. It’s a privilege to work with him. I think the Springboks are really going to miss him. I’m just fortunate to have worked with him.”

springboks-coaching-team-with-rassie-erasmus-felix-jones Jones speaks to Jacques Nienaber. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Jones is a details man. Le Roux recounts how the former Ireland fullback has helped him to stop falling off passes on one side, which had made them sometimes look like forward passes. Jones got le Roux to keep running forward after he passes.

Back row Kwagga Smith says Jones helped him to understand the value of actually reaching out to catch the ball as early as possible in order to have more decision-making time. 

Jones primarily works with the Springboks’ attack, strike plays, and backs, while his analysis work is highly influential within the set-up.

It obviously helped that he knew Erasmus and Nienaber so well when he first joined, while ex-Munster S&C specialist Aled Walters was also there in 2019. In the years since, Jones’ role has become more wide-reaching in an “organic” way.

Erasmus and Nienaber’s innovative, creative streak is something Jones will try to carry with him as he moves on.

“They think about things differently to what you’d expect,” says Jones.

“You’re constantly in a meeting or a coaching box discussing tactics informally. It’s just another point of view that, in most cases, most people won’t have considered.”

The Springboks’ coaching box certainly looks like a fascinating place to be, particularly during last weekend’s World Cup semi-final against England.

Jones is often seated in between Erasmus and Nienaber, while he had to run a message down to the touchline himself in that clash with England.

“It’s definitely vibrant,” says Jones. “It was loud, it was intense and sometimes when it’s that loud, giving a message over a radio or trying to communicate down is difficult.

“Sometimes you have to go down, get someone’s attention, and let them see how much intent you have with the message you’re giving for it to stick with someone. We’ve always had a very vibrant box and I think that’s the way we like it.”

felix-jones Jones will join England after the World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Erasmus and Nienaber haven’t been the only big influences on Jones, who was coached by the likes of Tony McGahan, Declan Kidney, Rob Penney, and Joe Schmidt. Indeed, Jones later visited Ireland camp as a young coach to learn from Schmidt.

Lots of former team-mates rubbed off on him too, including the legendary former All Blacks wing Doug Howlett at Munster.

“Doug was my first roommate when I joined Munster as a young fullback/winger,” says Jones.

“I couldn’t believe my luck who I got roomed with. I think Tony was our coach at that stage and he probably did that on purpose. I learned from one of the best there, Doug was a great mentor, a really good person, and somebody I stayed close with even after we retired from playing. I know he is now enjoying life back home.

“Rob was a brilliant coach for my development, he changed the way I thought about the game, he really did. He changed the way even the current players in Munster who still play and play for Ireland thought about the game. Two great people.”

Jones stays in touch with Howlett and Penny, as well as other former Munster men such as Jason Holland, who coaches in New Zealand.

Not that Jones needs inside knowledge this week ahead of the World Cup final against the All Blacks. His homework is well and truly done after hours of poring over footage to help the Boks players.

Jones will miss the Boks immensely but it will be exciting for him to start afresh with England after this tournament.

The move to join England will also mean shorter commutes from the family home in Dublin, which has made it tough at times working with the Boks.

“It’s been tricky but we were out there for a good while during the Lions tour [in 2021],” says Jones.

“We had a really good experience there. My boys were in a school in Paarl, they are back in Dublin now so look forward after next week to get a bit of time at home.”

Jones has one big job left before that family time.

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