How Felix Jones became a key component in South Africa's bid for glory

How Felix Jones became a key component in South Africa's bid for glory
South Africa's skills consultant Felix Jones during a warmup. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

An hour's drive north of Yokohama, where tomorrow's Rugby World Cup final will be played, lies the Ajinamoto Stadium.

One day before Ireland ran five tries by Japan, and six days after they'd run seven by the same opponents in Shizuoka, Felix Jones is taking part in the Captain's Run, one of three 'visiting coaches' on Ireland's summer tour to the US and Japan.

“I'll be honest,” Jones said, “I'm not doing a huge amount, it's more learning and throwing my two cents in wherever I can. But at this level, these guys have everything pretty much covered.”

That June turned out to be a more momentous month than everyone involved could have imagined.

Ireland – minus their 11 Lions, eight of whom made it to this year's World Cup – made short work of Jamie Joseph's team, with an aggregate victory over the two tests of 85-37.

Such a scoreline ensured Ireland's players and fans would travel east this year thinking the biggest obstacle in Pool A were Scotland. Awkward.

More was to come. One week before flying to Japan, following Ronan O'Gara and Girvan Dempsey as guests on Schmidt's tour, Jones signed a new two year deal as Munster's attack coach.

One week after he returned, Rassie Erasmus announced his departure from the province. Awkward.

The South African, who had long vowed to remain in charge of Munster despite swirling rumours that he was to be tempted home, soon returned to Limerick for help.

Aled Walters, the Welsh born strength and conditioning coach followed Erasmus south, but Jones hung around, rejecting a reported approach in early 2018.

But finally Erasmus got his man shortly after Jones and Jerry Flannery had rejected offers to stay with Munster.

“The final piece of the jigsaw” is how South Africa's Sunday Times reported the capture of Jones on a short term deal. The agreement bringing Jones on board for the World Cup was seen as one where he'd replace Swys de Bruijn, the Springbok attack coach who had fallen ill, but Erasmus explained that there was too little time to create a new attack ahead of Japan – and instead Jones would come on board to pick holes in opposition defences.

“We don’t really need it for southern hemisphere teams who we play on a regular basis,” he said, “but knowing that we’ll play Scotland or Ireland‚ or further down England it was good to get Felix in.

“I spent two years with him at Munster. The analysis he does on individual teams and defensive structures is phenomenal. Small little things that help individuals get better. That is a culture we are trying to get back into the South African game. I also know his work ethic. I didn’t have to convince him to think the way we think.”

Jones' knowledge of Scotland and Ireland ultimately went to waste, with Japan's unique style of expansive, expressive play leaving egg on the faces of Schmidt and Gregor Townsend.

Japan's well-earned victory over Ireland makes reviewing Schmidt's comments about Jones' move difficult to read.

“It's awkward because...you don't have to be a rocket scientist; he came to Japan with us the last time, so he was right in amongst us. So you don't have to ask really, do you?” Schmidt said, brimming with expectancy.

“He was with us, he's seen everything that we deliver and would have a great knowledge of even the language we use in our camp, so it's awkward for us.”

Awkward indeed.

Now Jones' knowledge of the England players is what may truly makes things awkward – but for Eddie Jones, not Schmidt.

It's difficult to believe Jones is only 32, younger than four of the players that wore green in Japan. A neck injury four years ago brought a premature end to a career that had seen him win a Six Nations title and 13 international caps – the last of those, fittingly, a World Cup warm-up game.

“It is still unthinkable to believe I will never play another game of rugby,” he said at the time. “Although I have tried to round myself as an individual through education and other interests, I have always had one driving purpose in my life and that was to play rugby.”

Now instead of playing, he's coaching, and tomorrow he could become the first Irishman to lift the Webb Ellis trophy, something his contemporaries have failed to get close to.

After a career that meandered from Seapoint to Old Belvedere to Shannon to Leinster and Munster, it's the fork in the road that's led him to Tokyo with the Springboks that stands out like a sore thumb, but he's always been open to new experiences.

As he began to adapt to life after playing, he visited Irish provinces before heading east to learn from coaches at Harlequins and Northampton, while also devouring tapes of games at international level.

“It was just good to open my eyes because all I knew was Munster,” he said. “It was nice to see how things were done differently, good and bad things. Some things were reassurances or reaffirmations, and other things made me go, ‘Wow, that’s something I’d never think of.’

“But you have to look elsewhere to see what other guys are doing and then when the international windows come around, watch what they’re doing. That’s very, very important I believe, as they’re at the forefront.”

Now it is he who is at the forefront, building on the initial opportunity given to him by Anthony Foley and extended by Erasmus.

“When Rassie came into Munster, he brought in Felix Jones who upskilled a lot of lads who were naturally good from playing Gaelic Football, the likes of Andrew Conway,” explained Jerry Flannery, his former team mate and coaching colleague.

“I'm sure South Africa had to put a focus on that with Rassie's gameplan, the aerial game is massive in rugby.

“Felix was a fantastic player in the air, so it's obviously something you'd gravitate toward as a coach – something you know intuitively well.

“He didn't just do the attack with Munster, he did our kicking game as well, and the kicking game can start with how you pack your ruck to give the kicker the best option, it works with escorting when receiving kicks, getting a strong chase on, Felix will take all those aspects and I'm sure he's training the Boks there as well.”

Jones will have spent the week analysing the kicking games of George Ford, who wore No10 in Jones' one and only game against England in 2015 (Ireland won), as well as looking for holes in the defensive games of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May.

Picking apart the overall English defensive system that so comprehensively negated New Zealand in the semi-final will be the toughest task Jones has faced, but it's exactly what Erasmus had in mind when tempting him south last summer.

“He has really contributed a lot in a short space of time,” said Mzwandile Stick, the Boks' assistant coach. “You saw in the game against Japan the opportunities we had and we managed to capitalise on them and it was because of his contribution also that is adding value on our side.

“There is a lot that he is contributing to our side, most recently with his attack and his philosophy behind the attack.”

Two years after his first rugby trip to Japan, Jones is delivering far more than just his “two cents”, and could be rewarded with the most priceless honour of all.

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