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Dublin: 0°C Saturday 10 April 2021

'I love Munster, I invested so much of myself into the place, and I still do love it'

Felix Jones was part of the Springboks’ coaching team as they won the World Cup last year.

A KNOWING SMILE breaks across Felix Jones’ face when you suggest he was happy enough the Springboks didn’t end up facing Ireland on their way to World Cup glory last year. As Joe Schmidt had suggested, it could have been awkward.

“It would have been a weird one,” says Jones.

Appointed as one of Rassie Erasmus’ assistant coaches just before the tournament, former Ireland international Jones had insider knowledge of how Schmidt’s Ireland operated, having been a guest coach on the tour of Japan in 2017.

It turned out Schmidt’s worries about Jones being involved with the Boks if Ireland met them in the quarter-finals didn’t have relevance as Schmidt’s men lost their pool game against Japan and got hammered by the All Blacks in their final-eight fixture. 

south-africas-felix-jones-celebrates Jones celebrates the Boks' World Cup success.

32-year-old Jones, meanwhile, marched on with the Boks and earned rave reviews from the South African players for his part in their trophy success.

Back home in Dublin over the winter, Jones has had time to reflect on what was a crazy time in his life. His parents are proudly taking care of his World Cup winner’s medal.

Jones left his role as attack and backs coach with Munster at the end of last season and planned to visit clubs in the UK and elsewhere to further his rugby education. He had been to Bath, Bristol, and others, when Erasmus called him on the eve of the World Cup and Jones’ world was turned upside down.

Jones wouldn’t have been available but for his decision to turn down a contract extension offer from Munster in May. Having joined as a player in 2009 – racking up 90 appearances before a neck injury forced him to retire and move into coaching with the province – it wasn’t an easy thing to do.

“It was a very difficult decision because I love the place, I invested so much of myself into the place, and I still do love it,” says Jones, who recalls the deep emotion of coaching at Munster during the time Anthony Foley passed away, particularly the game against Glasgow at Thomond Park the day after his funeral.

“I still think about it regularly…” and here Jones pauses.

“Myself and Jerry [Flannery] have said that Axel game, the Glasgow one… if we never coached another game, I would have been happy with my coaching career for the rest of my life. That day was just… it was just, it was different.”

There were disappointments on the pitch, though, as Munster lost the Pro14 final in 2017 and came up short at the semi-final stages of Europe. Jones hopes to see the province push on in the near future, but leaving last year was the right thing for him.

“I want them to be successful and I’m incredibly proud of having played for Munster. I’m proud of what we did over the last number of seasons as a coaching team. But I felt it was the right time for me and my family to just explore some other options.”

At the same time as Jones decided to leave Munster, the province were looking to appoint a new senior coach with responsibility for the team’s attack. Stephen Larkham is now in that role.

It would have been understandable if Jones had felt undermined by Munster’s decision to add a new coach in charge of attack alongside head coach Johann van Graan, but he insists that wasn’t the reason for his departure.

“I was actually really keen to get another coach involved,” said Jones. The workload when Axel [Anthony Foley] left, there was quite a workload thrown, I would say, on all the coaches at the time.

aib-future-sparks-festival-launch Felix Jones was speaking at the launch of the AIB Future Sparks Festival 2020. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

“Then Johann coming in not at the very start of the season [when Erasmus left in late 2017], it meant that there was a huge workload on the coaching staff that was there. I was really keen for us to bring in another coach and I would have loved to have had the opportunity to work with Stephen because by all accounts he has been doing a great job.

“So, no, I was actually really keen for us to get another person in. But, as I said, it just felt like the right thing to do for me and my family at the time.”

Jones took flak from some Munster supporters during his time as attack coach, but the sense was always that the attacking game plans came from Erasmus and then van Graan as the side’s head coaches, with Jones implementing their ideas.

Jones will only go as far as to say “it is never down to one man or down to one person. It is always a collective approach. Yes, there is always one person responsible in any job but, in my opinion, it is a collective approach.”

His young family’s hopes of seeing far more of Jones after he left Munster didn’t last too long as he fielded that call from Erasmus in August asking him to come on board with the Boks. Jones was actually in a caravan in Wicklow on holidays when his phone rang.

Erasmus had attempted to lure Jones across to the Boks before – when the former Ireland fullback was still in contract with Munster early in 2018 – but Jones turned the approach down.

“I wanted to stay loyal to Munster in terms of my contract and how much I had invested in the club. I really believed we were onto something,” explained Jones.

But when Swys de Bruin, one of Erasmus’ assistants, had to leave the Boks set-up due to personal reasons before the World Cup, Jones was available and willing to travel.

Linking up with Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, his former colleagues at Munster, was ideal. Jones had been in “constant contact” with this pair of “great rugby men” since they had left the province and knew he could fit into their set-up.

“You just look at what Rassie has done over the last 18 months with South Africa and the place that they were in compared to where they are now. I don’t think there’s a lot of people that can do that.

felix-jones-and-rassie-erasmus Jones and Erasmus at Munster training in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Jacques is a phenomenal coach, he is just phenomenal. And there’s also others that are involved there as well. Aled Walters [formerly of Munster], in my experience, he’s probably the best strength and conditioning coach in the world.”

Ireland boss Schmidt expressed his dismay at Jones joining the Boks, indicating that there had been “a couple of opportunities” for him to stay in Ireland coaching.

So how did that phone call with Schmidt go down for Jones? And what were the opportunities in Ireland?

“It’s funny because four years previous, we had a conversation for the 2015 World Cup where I wasn’t selected [as a player] and this was also a weird conversation where it was now the 2019 World Cup and I was kind of saying, ‘Look, Joe, this is an opportunity I’ve been afforded.’

“I’ve a good relationship with Joe, very respectful, he’s had a hugely encouraging role in my development as a coach. I spoke to him during the World Cup and I have spoken to him since. So, from that side there has been no… as I said, we’ve a good relationship and it’s very respectful.

“In terms of staying in Ireland, look, I have a decent relationship with [IRFU performance director] David Nucifora and he’s always been very, very good to me and has always, in my experience, tried to continue to develop Irish coaches and I know he’s keen to keep as many Irish coaches in the system here as possible.

“So, I had been in contact with David, at the time, trying to potentially think about if there was options here but ultimately it was my decision to leave and the opportunity that was being afforded to me was just too good to turn down.”

Jones’ involvement with the Boks was initially focused around opposition analysis, which proved an important part of their World Cup campaign, but it branched out into all areas of on-field coaching alongside the influential Nienaber.

His work with the Boks was extremely intense as he watched footage of upcoming opponents and every possible future rival around the clock. Jones lived and breathed rugby for virtually every minute of his time in Japan, all of it culminating in glory against England in the final.

He recalls being on the pitch afterwards in Yokohama and looking around at a group of people who all had their own story – Siya Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi, Walters, Erasmus, himself. “It was special for everyone in their own way.”

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felix-jones-after-the-game Jones soaks it all in after the Boks beat England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The trophy tour back in South Africa upon returning from Japan was special too. 

“I didn’t know what to expect and the guys, the South Africans, were saying it was going to blow my mind but I think it actually blew their minds,” said Jones. “We did about five to seven days… it’s a bit of a blur, I won’t lie. I’m not sure what was more intense, the actual World Cup or the celebrations after!

“There were so many people. It’s very hard for us to understand just how many people there are in South Africa and I still don’t think I really get how much it means to them. There’s so much to rugby and South Africa. It’s a very symbolic thing for South Africa to win the World Cup. It was some experience.”

Getting back to Ireland to catch up on long-overdue sleep and spend time with his family in recent months has been welcome for Jones, while he enjoyed visiting his home club of Seapoint RFC to see some of the old faces and plenty of new ones too.

Jones’ answer to a question on what his ‘break’ has involved is telling, though. He mentions the above, but quickly segues into providing another glimpse of his obsession with rugby.

“You don’t have the same level of intensity in terms of how you are watching games for analysis,” said Jones. “You’re able to take a little more time to watch a broader spectrum of teams.

“Generally, when you’re coaching with a team, you’re obviously looking at your opposition or teams you could potentially be playing against. But I’ve now been able to have a broader look, been able to look at the Top 14, the Premiership, obviously still the Pro14 but a broader view of the landscape.”

Rugby is an incessant pull and Jones will likely be back working sooner rather than later. Although he claims he’s not sure what comes next, he hints at an interest in seeing more of the rugby world.

Erasmus will certainly be keen to bring him back on board, while Jones’ skills will be in demand elsewhere too.

“I don’t know, is the honest answer. I’d love to say, but I don’t know. I do think it’s important that I try to see different environments and I think the way rugby is going, generally speaking, it appears it is becoming a more globalised game in terms of what teams in the south [Southern Hemisphere] are doing compared to teams in the north.

felix-jones Jones says he's not sure what comes next in his coaching career. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There are more coaches crossing the hemispheres and styles of play are being mixed around a bit and more players are moving all over the place, so ideas are being shared.”

Whatever the next step is, Jones won’t be changing his underlying philosophy.

“It sounds so basic but it’s giving as much effort as possible daily. That is how I’ve approached most things in my life up to this point – working as hard as I possibly can on a day to day basis.

“Then at least at the end of the day, I can say, ‘Look, If I am wrong, if I’ve made a mistake it’s not that I intended to, it’s what I genuinely thought was right at the time’.

“Sometimes it comes through, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Felix Jones was speaking at the launch of the AIB Future Sparks Festival 2020, an innovative careers festival for senior cycle students, which is taking place on March 26th in the RDS. #backingstudents 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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