Change that Munster can believe in

Munster backline and attack coach Felix Jones, head coach Johann van Graan, and forwards coach Jerry Flannery in conversation prior to the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 6 match between Munster and Castres at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Edinburgh Airport, Saturday evening, March 30. As the Munster squad and supporters prepare to fly home after a tense quarter-final victory at Murrayfield, there are numerous emotions on display.

Pints to be drunk for some fans, eager to start the party as they digest that nerve-racking 17-13 win over a much-fancied Edinburgh side. Congratulations and handshakes for head coach Johann van Graan and his players, conversations with loved ones to be had.

And there in the middle is Felix Jones, Munster’s backline and attack coach. He may look wiped out by the 80-minute experience he went through just a couple of hours earlier, but underneath it all the former Munster and Ireland full-back is incredibly satisfied by his side’s achievements.

When he sits down to talk with the Irish Examiner three weeks later, a semi-final with Saracens looming large and another away trip to battle the odds, Jones, 31 and retired since October 2015, acknowledges that coaching can be just as exhausting as being on the field.

“There’s definitely a huge amount of energy that goes into the games, even if you’re not playing,” he says of that evening in the airport.

“We were in good form in that game. Probably what didn’t come across to a lot of people was just how disrupted we actually were.

We were delighted to get the result there given how good a team that Edinburgh are — and all the things that went against us.

He continued: “You lose Mike Haley, who’s probably played the most minutes for us all year, an hour before kick-off, then you lose Tadhg (Beirne) to the sin bin, you lose Jean Kleyn who has to go off to do an HIA (head injury assessment); you lose Joey (Carbery) after 35 minutes, you lose Jack O’Donoghue to an HIA altogether... that’s five massive moments.

"One of those moments alone could be a defining one in a game and we had five!”

The way Munster came through that day would have frayed the nerves of most coaches. Holding Edinburgh out for long periods without the ball, including a 36-phase last stand to see out the game following an excellent try finished by Keith Earls with 10 minutes to go, was a testament to the squad’s resilience, adaptability, and flexibility. Jones does not dispute the assessment.

“That’s been a big element to the squad this year, that there has been a bit more depth. Take Darren Sweetnam as an example, not alone having to do it (replacing the sick Haley) an hour before kick-off but in the Exeter game over in Sandy Park, he was called on about a minute after we came in from the warm-up (after Earls pulled up). He’s done it multiple times for us so having guys ready to step up is of course important.”

Similar positives will be needed in Coventry today as Munster attempt to bury the demons of a chastening semi-final defeat to Saracens in Dublin two years ago.

“They’re a very, very strong team,” he says of Mark McCall’s side. “It’s just quality internationals all over the park. They are a phenomenal side.”

Munster are a much-improved outfit from the day they were “suffocated”, to use Jones’s expression, by Sarries at the Aviva, a game which led then director of rugby Rassie Erasmus to declare that his squad needed more strings to its bow if it was going to compete on the same level as the defending and soon to be back-to-back champions.

Two years on and Jones, despite some external opinions to the contrary, is adamant that Munster have developed since then but reminds critics such evolution in terms of gameplan cannot happen overnight. Jones was a player when that was tried during Rob Penney’s two-season reign as head coach and things did not end well.

“Perception has it that we are not (evolving) but as a coaching team we’re looking at it with a fine-tooth comb every day and in our heads there is no question that we have evolved significantly. Not just in the way we’re playing but also in some of the guys that we’ve brought in that have added to it.

“You’ve heard Johann mention the influence that Joey, Alby, Tadhg have had, Mike Haley and on top of that you look at how many guys we had in the international set-up, I don’t think there was too many at that stage two years ago but if you look at it now…

“And also our players are a little bit more mature and have experienced more highly pressurised situations.

“That’s not to say we’re going to go out and win the game or be dominant or anything like that — I’m not saying that for a second — but when you’re asking about how much we’ve evolved, I think year on year it’s been significant. But it’s not this thing that you just click your fingers and you change.

Furthermore I think it’s important that a team maintains identity and knowing what it is that gets them to certain places and that is their foundation.

“It’s not that long ago, three or four years ago, when maybe we veered off that path and you can see the effect it has. But we believe we’re significantly evolving but not losing your identity is also very important.”

It should not go unnoticed that Jones has twice referenced what he perceives to be a dichotomy between what the Munster coaches see and that which is observed or unappreciated outside the camp, although he insists it was not an annoyance.

“No. In here, we’re very conscious of what we’re looking at and what we’re doing so it’s pretty irrelevant, to be honest. As long as we’re all aligned in here, that’s what matters. We’re aligned in terms of the way we’re looking at the game and the way we see things. There’s challenges at times, which is healthy, but that’s good.”

Being aligned with former team-mate turned forwards coach Jerry Flannery is one thing; being on the same page as their boss of 17 months quite another. The term ‘rugby nerd’ has been applied to van Graan more than once and that is one perception Jones is not about to contradict. “Oh, he loves it. I think you kind of have to be (a nerd) at this level.”

Forced to retire through injury at the age of 28, Jones has thrown himself into coaching since starting his new career path in July 2016 but he does draw the line at applying the term “rugby nerd” to himself.

“No. When you start coaching, the workload is not comparable. It can’t be, because if you’re a player you’ve got to be fresh mentally as much as you are physically. As a coach, there’s always another game to watch, there’s always another bit of analysis you could do. It’s endless. You couldn’t possibly watch all the games from every single

weekend, from every single team around the world. It can be all-consuming if you allow it but it’s also important from our side to have the ability to switch off and take stock every now and again as well.”

So how does Jones switch off? There’s an automatic response. “Family. My family would be the main thing, two young boys under three, that’s full on.”

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