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Coaching role feels like a natural fit for passionate Felix Jones

Former stalwart relishing new role with Munster after injury ended his playing career

At just 30 years of age, Felix Jones is the youngest full-time coach with any of the provincial set-ups.

It’s been a rapid rise since his playing career was cruelly cut short with a neck injury in October 2015 at just 28. Yet after making such a positive impression as a technical coach last season, he was promoted to Munster’s backs and attack coach this season.

This week, Tuesday was Jones’ particularly busy day. It’s a double training day, with the emphasis on his remit – attack.

In the afternoon session he busily ran from one play to the next, whistling to signal a defensive line-out, a kick-chase and other game scenarios. Then he stayed on for some passing with the scrumhalves, including John Hart, one of the few out there who he hasn't played alongside.

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Yet being a relative contemporary to the players is seen as a strength. Rassie Erasmus recently spoke of Jones being one of those players who thought like a coach when he was a player, and that he has the ability, work ethic, accuracy and empathy with the players to be a coach.

Simon Zebo says of him: "He's a great coach. He knows the game. He's so fresh out of playing. He only turned to coaching the year after he retired. You don't really have any excuses with him. You can't say to him 'I was thinking this', because he knows exactly what each scenario is like as a player.

“He’s very hands on. He’s a great motivator who knows how each player ticks. There’s no better man to go into detail than Felix. He’s a bit of a nerd,” he adds with a knowing smile, “but he’s an excellent coach.”

Jones has plenty on his plate this week, and every other week. His partner Lyanne gave birth to their second boy, Freddie, last Monday week – a younger brother to 18-month-old Alfie.

“A baby in the first week of Europe and then a six-day turnaround,” he points out. “It’s full-on,” he says, laughing at the understatement. “At the moment the most challenging part of the job for me is finding the work/life balance.”

He’s also studying for a Masters in Sports, Exercise and Performance Psychology at the University of Limerick. It’s no wonder he’s had to put his thesis to the side.

Bigger picture

Nor will his day's work end with this interview. Wednesday is D Day, as in defence, and so on Tuesday evening, Jones was to go through Jacques Nienaber's analysis of the Racing attack and begin preparing the Munster A squad to effectively ape the Parisians in readiness for the afternoon session.

“The days are long, but they don’t seem long. We’ll sit in coaches’ meetings for hours, and they fly by. They’re very engaging and challenging. They’re gold. I’m learning the whole time,” he says.

Sitting in the sports bar which overlooks the training pitch at UL, he says: “Being outside is without a doubt the best part of it. The hardest part is definitely sitting at home on your own late at night analysing.

“I suppose I am young, relatively speaking, but it doesn’t daunt me. I want to work hard and I want to do as well as I can, but also do as well as I can for Munster. That’s what’s best for Munster.”

Overall though, he seems to be taking to this coaching lark like the proverbial duck to water.

“I don’t know about that. It’s certainly different. I think I’ve learned more about rugby in the last 18 months than I ever did as a player.

“As a player you’re just so focused on doing your role, whereas as a coach, you have to think about the bigger picture, and how your department might work with other departments. I can only imagine what it’s like as a head coach. Bloody hell. It must be very, very tough. I’d say it’s all-consuming. And I was a committed player. I was full-on as a player,” he admits, laughing at himself.

He accepts Erasmus’s point that a part of him is suited to coaching, and says he’s learned “a crazy amount” from the South African who will soon be homeward bound.

“I think he’s somebody you probably only meet once in your lifetime. He has a love for rugby and he’ll take the most difficult equation or situation, or is complicated, or touchy, and he’ll simplify it. It’s a great skill. I’ve never met anyone like him.”

He also admits that at times he has been blown away by some of the things Erasmus will pick up on in the first half, and then convey to the players in that brief interval interlude; a skill he admits he has to develop.

Neck injury

As for Nienaber?

“I don’t think I’ve learned as much about rugby from anyone as him in the last 18 months. Zeebs calls me a nerd? I’d like to hear how he describes Jacques. Crazy knowledge about the game – the most I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned a lot around the role of analysis as a coach. I would never have been at that level as a player. He provides a huge amount of analysis for the players.”

In that sense, he’s sorry they’re going, but wouldn’t begrudge them their new opportunity. “I think they could do something really special.”

He’s also looking forward to working with Johann van Graan, whom he met for the first time this week, and Jones maintains that there is nothing like the sense of upheaval that is being conveyed in the media.

“People are always going to stay stuff on the outside. Come down and watch training and spend a day in the HPC (High Performance Centre), and see. I certainly haven’t felt that. But people will say what they want.”

Jones has always been a sponge for the game, and after retiring visited as many clubs and schools as possible before accepting Anthony Foley’s invitation to help with some training sessions. When Erasmus came in, he fleshed out more of a role for him.

Looking back, Jones has a mixture of pride in playing for Munster 90 times and Ireland 15 times, and also frustration that neck, knee and ankle injuries sidelined him for lengthy spells before a second neck injury forced him to retire.

“On one hand I look back and I know 100 per cent that every single time I played or trained I gave absolutely everything. No regrets on that. Of course I look back and wonder ‘If I wasn’t injured then what could have happened?’ But that’s life, and if I can’t make peace with that then I’d be waking up in the middle of the night for years to come.”

Nor are there any regrets about how he missed out on the 2011 World Cup.

“I got injured going up for a high ball. I jumped as high as I could to try and catch that thing, and landed awkwardly, but I’d still go full out for that high ball if I was given a chance today.”

The same for his final game, when injuring his neck against Glasgow in October 2015.

“I was met with a wall of defenders, and my way of playing was to try and pierce through that wall of defenders, and it got me. A lot of my injuries were done by playing hard and that was the way I liked to play.”

Tight ship

Nonetheless, being advised not play again at 28 was tough.

“I absolutely loved it. I loved playing for Munster. I say to the players ‘play for as long as you can’ because there is no better feeling than walking out in Thomond Park, or being in the circle after a win.”

Other major influences were Richie Murphy, in the Leinster academy, and Rob Penney. "He's somebody I would still keep in touch with."

And, of course, Joe Schmidt.

“Joe is, again, another very unique person; somebody who is rugby to the core. Loads of people have said it before, how detailed he is and how he challenges players mentally to stay in the moment and to perform on big stages.”

Jones spent a week with the Irish squad in Japan.

“It was what I expected. He runs an incredibly tight ship, and he knows what is going on across this entire programme. Head coaching is full-on.

“Rugby in general is an incredible sport because it just has so many aspects to it from coaching to playing to the type of player you are, to the position you are, to the body shape you are, to the skill level you have. It has so many facets that it’s ‘unmasterable’. You could be in it for 100 years and you could not master every element of it.”

Unsurprisingly, Jones didn’t have time to watch the Foley documentary on Monday night, as the six-day turnaround gave him less time to prepare for Tuesday’s double session. Foley was the coach who made Jones captain for big games such as the wins over Leinster at the Aviva and in Thomond Park in 2014-15, and who brought him into the coaching set-up.

“Axel was always so good to me. It’s unbelievable to think it’s been a year.”

Today is partly about doing Axel proud again.

“In our own way we mention him every week, but because of this week there’s an obvious link. We don’t mention him before every game, but he’s there the whole time.”

Munster will always be inextricably linked with European Cup rugby and nights such as these at Thomond Park. That brings a pressure to perform and achieve, but Jones has a different take on this.

Something honourable

“Previous to last year, certainly when I was a player, there was definitely an element of feeling that pressure, which is natural. You have to ask the other players, but I’m speaking honestly now. I feel that when Axel died last year there wasn’t huge pressure anymore. It was like rugby was something honourable to play. It actually empowered you, not something you felt pressurised by. It didn’t weigh you down.

“I think it’s important to realise that because Munster probably won’t ever have the biggest budgets or we might not always have the best players or even the best coaching or whatever.”

He describes the expectation on Munster as the older guard were leaving as “like a wave coming over you” and adds: “I don’t believe that is enjoyable and I really felt when Axel died last year, it was like a light switch went off in people’s heads. ‘This is real life.’ And real life is Axel and Olive and Dan and Tony. Playing rugby for Munster is something that should empower you, make you feel good. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win the thing. Sometimes on the day a better team might get you. But that’s kind of my outlook on it at the moment.”

In a sense, Munster were reminded of who they are, for while they’ve always had great players, they’ve thrived on competing against bigger teams or bigger budgets.

“There is something different in Munster that bridges that gap to some degree. Whether it’s the crowd or whether it’s Thomond Park or whether it’s that X number of people in the Munster team this weekend literally dreamed of playing for Munster throughout their boyhood. Definitely it was reignited last year and hopefully Munster can hold on to that for as long as they can. Because it’s incredible.”