It’s ironic that at a time when the stock of English coaches has never been higher in Irish rugby, the same applies for Irish coaches abroad generally, with confirmation coming by way of the RFU and Steve Borthwick enlisting Felix Jones after this year’s World Cup.
Jones’ actual role has yet to be defined, or at any rate announced, but it says something about the coaching CV which the 35-year-old has already put together that he was a wanted man by two of the biggest nations in the global game.
Jones remains the only Irishman to possess a World Cup winners’ medal and having been brought aboard the Springboks’ coaching ticket before their successful 2015 World Cup by his former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus it is clear they desperately wanted to keep him.
Given the RFU’s resources, it is also a telling commentary on Jones’ coaching credentials that Borthwick wanted him as well. One therefore can only include that no less than Ronan O’Gara and all the other ex-Irish players coaching abroad, Jones is now one of the most highly-regarded coaches in world rugby.
That he has developed into such a fine coach is perhaps not surprising as his attention to detail and work ethic as a player was renowned, and he has evidently taken those attributes into his coaching.
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He had been forced to retire prematurely at the age of 28 and initially began studying a master’s degree in sport, exercise and performance psychology at UL.
Anthony Foley brought him into the Munster set-up in the 2015-16 season on an ad-hoc basis before Erasmus appointed Jones as the Munster attack coach in 2016. It was during the 2016-17 season that this writer interviewed Jones in the cafe overlooking the main, track-ringed pitch in the University of Limerick, and the overwhelming impression was of a young coach with a ferocious appetite and infectious enthusiasm for the sport and his work.
He remained at Munster to work with Johann van Graan, and had no doubt a particularly informative week working with Joe Schmidt – who was a huge admirer of Jones as a player and a person – during Ireland’s 2017 summer tour to Japan.
Jones had reputedly resisted overtures from Erasmus to work with the Springboks but after he and Jerry Flannery each declined to take up a new contract with Munster at the end of the 2018-19 season, the then South African head coach came calling again.
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Initially hired to do some analysis, Jones’ remit gradually broadened to include more work on the training pitch and the brilliant Chasing the Sun documentary also showcases his ability to deliver well-prepared and concise tactical presentations.
The players lauded him for his role in helping the Springboks to beat England in the final, after which he signed a new four-year deal to remain with the Springboks while basing himself in the UK to be nearer his family in Ireland, while regularly working with the Boks’ European-based players but also joining up with the squad for competitions and training camps.
“It’s a big loss for the Springboks to lose a coach of Felix’s calibre,” Rassie Erasmus said.
“While we are saddened by the decision, we know how difficult it was for him to make that call and we fully understand the reasons.
“He’s been an asset to the Springboks in the last few years and the way he has evolved in his role and willingly took on additional responsibilities to ensure that the team functioned as optimally as possible in his areas of expertise, has been admirable.
“We know Felix will remain fully committed to the Springboks’ cause and give everything as we attempt to defend our Rugby World Cup title in France, and hopefully we can make it a special and memorable send-off for him later this year.”
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Jones described coaching the Springboks as “one of the biggest privileges in rugby” before adding: “I intend to do everything I can to ensure the team is successful until the day my contract comes to its natural end.
“The last four years has been an incredible journey for me and my family, both professionally and personally, I am indebted to so many people at the Springboks and in South Africa for that.
“My commitment to the Springboks until the end of the Rugby World Cup is unquestionable, and Rassie, Jacques [Nienaber – Springbok head coach] and the entire Springbok team know that.
“The next five months are going to be exciting and demanding, and I’m looking forward to preparing for the World Cup with this coaching team.”
Fair play to him.