When you talk to former coaches and former players of Felix Jones, it’s clear that England’s new defense coach squeezed every bit of potential out of himself as a player.
“I think Felix would be the first to say he didn’t have the most accurate skills,” Munster coach Rob Penney told Telegraph Sport. “What he lacked in some of that aspect, he made up for in energy, passion and work rate, which was unquestionable.”
The player who lacked raw talent but outperformed his peers due to his work ethic and smart box ability has fared well. Jones had that single-minded determination and sharp intellect necessary to overcome any obstacle thrown in his path.
But there is no happy ending to this particular fairy tale story as Jones’ playing career has been plagued by a series of gruesome injuries. He won 13 Ireland caps as well as a Magners Series with Munster in 2011 but missed out on World Cup selection twice and was forced to retire aged 28.
But when one door closes, another opens and what slipped from Jones’ grasp as a player is more than he grasped as a coach. You can probably count on one hand the number of coaches who will have a couple of World Cups on their CVs by the age of 36, but few of his contemporaries surprise at the pace.
Jerry Flannery, the former Munster team-mate and Ireland hurler who will go on to become the Springboks’ defense coach, says what Jones has shown from the start of his career is his brains and determination to make it his own. He wrote a 10,000 word thesis on Greek columns for his degree in classics at University College Dublin. He later obtained a Masters in sports psychology.
Perhaps even more impressively as a Dubliner born and bred, he recognized that he would struggle to break into Leinster and so crossed the great Irish rugby divide by moving to Munster. “It shows his strength of character,” Flannery said. “Not many players take that step, but he settled in immediately.”
Fear that he would never walk again
The move to Munster begins the story of what could have been. In his sixth straight Munster game, Jones went head-to-head. “What I thought was, ‘right, touch here, duck down [brace yourself]’, but the next thing I heard a crunch,” Jones told the Irish Examiner. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s not good.'” He was later told he had a dislocated cervical vertebra. In layman’s terms he had broken his neck. He feared he would never walk again and was told for sure that his playing career was over.
But after a grueling rehabilitation process, he played again. Four games into his comeback, he picked up his cruciate, which spelled another six months on the sidelines. He returned midway through the 2010/11 season helping Munster win the Magners League. He was called up to Ireland’s World Cup training squad, making an impressive debut against France when he went up for a high ball and heard another crunch. This time it was his leg.
“He played very well in those warm-up games and had a good chance to start in the World Cup but then it went badly. [foot injury],” Flannery said. “I worked with him and saw how hard he worked to come back. It was disastrous. I was sad for him, especially when he put himself in such a great position. Sport can be so cruel.”
During this particular version, Jones began playing in Barry Murphy’s band, Hermitage Green, playing the bodhrán, a frame drum. Again Jones worked his way back to full fitness, only to suffer a shoulder injury in the PRO12 semi-final for the Ospreys which ruled him out of New Zealand’s tour to Ireland.
“People say, ‘it’s a lot of character to do what you’ve done’, but I don’t think so,” Jones told the Examiner. “When you only have one choice, what other choice are you going to take?” So he plowed on, making the 2015 World Cup training squad again but missing out this time by selection. However, another serious neck injury led to his retirement shortly afterwards.
‘The best players don’t make the best coaches’
Penney, who is now head coach of the Crusaders, left Munster shortly before Jones resigned but had already been identified as the coach of the future and remains a confidant. “Felix probably reached his threshold as a player,” Penney said. “Often what happens with players like Felix who haven’t had the ability to push on to the highest level is that they work out a way to be the best player they can be. So their depth of understanding of the game and why they are able to do what they can and how they can add value to their understanding as a coach.
“Sometimes the best players don’t understand why they do what they do and they get frustrated trying to coach others because they can’t pass those lessons on. It’s teaching the skill to a developing person, if you don’t have the depth of understanding of how you made it as a player and how you overcame obstacles. Felix had all that because he had to compete at the highest level.”
That move began almost immediately as he was folded into the coaching staff at Munster under Anthony Foley and then Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus while on loan with the Irish team under Joe Schmidt while still in his 20s. “There aren’t many industries that you go into at the highest level right away, but it’s also a huge challenge,” Flannery said. “To go in and coach your mates, guys like Peter O’Mahony, when he’s got to be 29, that’s really hard. It was quite difficult to do when I was 35. I think what Felix did in Munster was as impressive as winning the World Cup.”
Both Flannery and Penney are convinced that Jones’ upward trajectory will only continue with England. “It was great to watch him from afar to win a couple of World Cups,” Penney said. “He’s committed heart and soul to whatever he does and I’m sure he’ll bring that intensity to England.”
Flannery agrees. “His breadth and depth of knowledge across the game is almost unmatched,” Flannery said. “England’s players face a challenge but it will make them better players.”