KIERAN SHANNON: Unbreakable Jones

Felix Jones has faced a series of serious injuries that would have made most young players question the wisdom of trying to make a career at the highest level.

But the Munster full-back continues to prove his will is forged of iron, even if his battered body is not.

Felix Jones lifts the Magners League trophy in 2011 after battling his way back from a cruciate injury. However, his joy was short-lived as a foot injury sustained on his Ireland debut against France wrecked his World Cup hopes.

Under Armour ambassador Felix Jones has refused to let a series of serious injuries beat him — instead using the time away from playing to build up mind and body.

elix Jones. Even the name is as fabulous as his talent but there’s a reason you haven’t heard or seen enough of either in or under bright lights.

If Brian Clough had been his manager then Jones would probably have been told that were he a racehorse he’d have been long put down. That’s what Ol’ Big Head infamously remarked to the injury-prone Eddie Gray when he first walked into Elland Road, which might explain how Cloughie lost that dressing room as quickly as he’d entered it, but while Rob Penney resisted making such an insensitive assessment of Jones, the parallel between Gray and Jones is obvious.

If anything, Gray escaped lightly compared to what Jones has had to endure; Evel Knievel’s checklist of career injuries would bear a closer resemblance to the Dubliner’s. Back when he was in UCD while coming through the academy in Leinster, Jones took classical studies as his major, once writing a 10,000-word essay on the origins and development of the Greek column. That memory brings an ‘I know, I know’ smile to his face but in many ways his body has been like the subject of that final-year thesis: scarred and weathered but resolute and still upright.

Another player would either have given up or been given up on but that the 25-year-old is still standing, still on the Munster books, is a measure of the warrior and player that he is. Don Revie once said about Gray that when he played on snow, he didn’t leave any footprints. Jones at his best is similarly fleet and sleight of foot, though his luck being what it is, he broke it as well.

That was hardly the worst of the injuries though, even if it ruled him out of last year’s World Cup. Three years ago this month a top doctor told him he would never play again because of his neck. In fact, when he was being stretchered off the field in Thomond that night, Jones feared he might never even walk again.

He’d been buzzing entering that game against Connacht. It was his sixth appearance for Munster since making the switch from his native Leinster the previous summer, and the confidence and flair with which he was playing had no one doubting he made the right decision.

Then he scooped up a ball, evaded an opponent with a little jink, but spotted Johnny O’Connor bearing down on him like a juggernaut.

“All I thought was, ‘right, contact here, duck down [brace yourself]’, but next thing I heard a crunch and thought to myself, ‘oh Jesus, that’s not good’.” His chin had collided full on with O’Connor’s body of granite. For a moment he tried to stand up but then he collapsed in a heap and felt the ‘stinger’.

Almost every professional rugby player knows the sensation and every one of them dreads it. “It’s like a hot oily feeling burning down your arm and I had it going down both sides, from the top of my neck down to my elbows.”

As the medical team delicately examined him and manoeuvred him onto the spinal board, he feared the worst. A brief examination for movement in his hands and toes was encouraging but that couldn’t stop the thought of being wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life flashing across his mind.

As he was being carried off, the little node at the back of his skull was tormenting him until the hugely diligent and reassuring team doctor JP Donohoe slipped a small cut of foam underneath to provide enormous relief, the memory of which still makes Jones smile. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Jones was still wearing his jersey, shorts and boots. The heat and his discomfort was so overwhelming, they had to cut off his jersey with scissors before JP went about gently massaging his lower back to quell the severe spasms.

Once the X-ray was taken, morphine was given to provide instant and comic relief. Paul O’Connell and Ian Dowling had called to check in on him but all he could see were these blurry, baffled faces looking down on him while this delirious, disoriented, tripping team-mate smiled back up at them.

The next day Jones was transferred to Cork University Hospital. His friends and family had all come down from Dublin and he needed their support when medics told him he would most likely never play again.

That jolted through him more than a stinger ever could. Rugby had been his passion since he was a kid in Dun Laoghaire and his father had started taking him to the local junior club, Seapoint. He’d been going to internationals in Lansdowne at nine, and as a teenager aspired to playing with Leinster, only like Geordan Murphy, whose daring, dashing style instantly appealed to a light-framed kid whorelied on finesse more than power.

As the years progressed, Jones would come to also greatly admire the solidity of Girvan Dempsey. After a couple of years in the Leinster academy he was even training with Dempsey and the other senior pros. In 2008 he played against Connacht in the Sportsground, the same-stormy night that Felipe Contepomi’s penalty sailed over the bar and then sailed right back again. But that was his one and only competitive senior game for Leinster. Although he’d come through the province’s academy and was a member of the Irish U20 Grand Slam-winning team with Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, Jones was unable to break onto his club’s senior starting line-up.

“At the time Leinster was just chock-a-block with guys who played where I could: Rob [Kearney], Luke [Fitzgerald], Isa Nacewa, Girvan, Shane Horgan. I had a bigger picture in mind all the time, of playing for Ireland, but to do that, I felt it meant going somewhere else to get an opportunity to play, so Munster seemed like the right decision.”

But then, just as he was beginning to play regularly in red, he found himself in that hospital bed, being told he’d probably never play again. His cervical vertebrae had been dislocated, an injury similar to the one that would force Scottish winger Thom Evans to retire a few months later.

“Hearing those words was rough,” says Jones, “but all I kept thinking was, ‘if I could only get to play some football when I have kids when I’m older, that’s all I want’.

Then the doctor mentioned something about consulting some American colleagues that might have worked with American football players. I immediately looked at that as a positive. There was still a chance I could compete again.”

The way back was painful and slow. He had a laser attached to the top of his head with a clock above. On a command, he’d tilt his head accordingly: starting now at noon, move to one o’clock. Good, and back to noon again. And to one o’clock again.

That’s how it went, putting small, huge victories like that together, day by day. A watershed was learning that he could play again. Evans’ neck had been dislocated by 40 degrees; Jones’s, by about only 20. Buoyed by that news, he pushed on: building up his neck muscles by attaching them to a dumbbell; walking up and touching a tackle pad, then shouldering it, then bashing it.

By August 2010 he was back making a last-minute tackle in the corner to secure a pre-season friendly win over Gloucester in Musgrave Park. Then he started in the season opener against Aironi, even scoring a try. “That was a huge moment for me. I was just so happy to be back when a few months earlier I thought I might not be able to play again.”

Two games later and he was gone again, for six months. In virtually the same spot where he’d taken that hit from O’Connor, he crumbled again to the Thomond turf after taking a wide step. Cruciate.

He reminds you in that affable, rooted way of his that he was the lucky one that night; that same game against the Ospreys, Ian Dowling did his hip and never played for Munster again. Jones himself got through with a little help from some friends. Dowling was one, pushing him on in the gym while trying to get back himself. Dr Ray Moran was also terrific. They’d previously met back in 2006 when Jones tore a cruciate which ruled him out of the U19 World Cup. Back then Jones assumed they’d never meet again. Now they’re like best pals.

“Ray’s just so reassuring. You come in and he puts his arm around you and he tells you, ‘you’ll be fine, Felix, I’ll fix you’. That really boosts you but then a few weeks later it wears off when you’re trying to do a single leg hop. You’ve literally got to learn how to walk before you jog, then jog before you can run.”

By the following spring he was back sprinting and playing for Munster, helping them secure the Magners League. He even made a late dash for the plane to New Zealand and the World Cup, impressing in a couple of warm-up games with his brilliant counter-attacking game. Then, in his first start for his country, his World Cup dream ended. In the closing minutes of a warm-up game against France, he went up for a high ball. When he came down he heard a crunch in his foot.

“Right away I thought, ‘for f***’s sake, not again!’ [Dr] Eanna [Falvey] came on and said, ‘I can’t feel a break’, but I knew it was gone — the foot, the World Cup, the lot. That was an awful time. The first few weeks were just ridiculous, just how pissed off and sorry I was for myself.

“For days I just left the phone off. I didn’t want contact with anyone. Then a few pals from Dublin said, ‘come on, let’s go for a pint’, but I must have been miserable company for them. Whatever pub we were in it was just World Cup, World Cup everywhere.”

Eventually he went back down to Limerick. That helped the mood a bit, the black comedy of the Munster dressing room. His first day back John Hayes and Marcus Horan were wondering why was everyone saying, ‘hard luck’ to him? Sure Deccie was never going to bring him to New Zealand anyway! They all helped in their own way.

Jerry Flannery and Dave Wallace, recovering from their own World Cup disappointment, drove him on in the gym, along with the likes of Mike Sherry and Troy Smith. By now Jones had come to view injury as opportunity, and this particular layoff was a window to bulk up his upper body.

It also afforded himself a chance to work on his musicianship. The previous year he’d started to jam with some team-mates and friends. Barry Murphy and his brother Dan could both play guitar and sing. Jones’s flatmate, Darragh Graham, the former sprinter and Leinster fitness coach, had a banjo. Jones himself could mess about with a bodhrán. It began as some fun, in their own houses and then favourite local, covering the likes of Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine and Elbow with a considerable Neil Young influence. By 2011 Jones was playing more gigs with Hermitage Green than he was matches, in front of decent crowds too. All the while though, music was a mere diversion. Rugby remained his focus.

“I started to visualise every day. I’d set the alarm for maybe 20 minutes, close my eyes, relax and start with my foot, maybe at first it simply walking the [running] track in UL barefoot. Then I’d start jogging, then I’d start running. It was mad; I could even feel my foot twitching while I was doing this in the house.

“The more I did, the better I got at it, the clearer it would become. I could hear someone bouncing a basketball in the court opposite to the track I was jogging. Then it would be, ‘right, I’m on to the pitch now’. Then it would be getting ready for a game, going up for a high ball, stepping off the foot, it feeling good, feeling strong.

“In 20 minutes I’d have gone from just walking on the foot to powering off it during big games. Because I couldn’t just expect to go back on to the training field and do ridiculous steps like I used. I was keeping those neural pathways open, oiling that muscle memory. I needed that positive reinforcement that the foot would be okay.”

Skills coach Ian Costello was another guide in that journey from his bed back to the pitch, smacking anything from tennis balls to squash balls at him or off the wall to hone his reflexes.

By February Jones was back catching oval balls in Thomond, scoring a try in his first start back. By April he was making his Heineken Cup debut in the quarter-final against Ulster.

A month later he was gone again.

The week leading up to the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final against Ospreys, he couldn’t even lift a water bottle above his head. The stingers were back. He volunteered to take a fitness test and very early into it when he couldn’t make a tackle he knew it was gone — his shoulder, the Ospreys, another tour to New Zealand.

He had been desperate to make that plane when others would have been happier to stay at home. He wanted to show Declan Kidney what he could do for Ireland, and as Brent Pope points out, it would have been a chance to impress All Black fans too.

“Felix is the kind of full-back they love in the southern hemisphere,” said the RTÉ pundit. “He’s a fast, mazy runner who can break the first line of attack, who wants to run with the ball rather than kick it.”

But so far they haven’t seen him in New Zealand because Ireland have hardly seen him either.

He’s back now though, at least with Munster, as of last month. Again he remained diligent and patient. Again he visualised. Again he worked relentlessly hard. He even gave up Hermitage Green. During the summer he took a flight to Boston and even then he attracted strange looks.

“People were looking at this weirdo in the line, swinging his arms about,” said Jones. “It was the same on the plane when I was standing up every couple of hours to move my shoulder, get some motion in it. They’re the baby steps you have to take.”

Even since his return there’s been the odd setback but he hasn’t looked at them like that. He wasn’t called up to the Irish squad last month but he agreed with Kidney that he needed more games. A fortnight ago he had probably been Munster’s best player in Musgrave Park until late on he failed to retrieve a ball, leaving the Ospreys in for a match-winning try. When you’ve had the kind of knocks Felix Jones has had, you just dust that off. Next ball, next game. He can’t get enough of either.

All through his ordeals, he’s remained grounded. Seapoint play in the AIL now and he still tries to get out to their games. He’s an ambassador to the club’s special needs team, the Dragons, that play tag rugby against other teams in the greater Dublin area.

He considers himself blessed and lucky, for all that has happened. He shares a house with Barry O’Mahony and Ian Keatley, whose massive projector screen regularly beams out great and not-so great movies. He’s part of a new generation of Munster player who are all friends and all desperately keen to play their part in the tradition. His new coach is advocating the kind of rugby that he himself loves to play. Where else would he want to be?

“People say, ‘it’s taken great character to do what you’ve done’, but I don’t think so. When you’ve only one option, what other option are you going to take?

“In my eyes all the injuries were isolated cases but at the same time I realise that the way I play the game, I’m probably going to always be somewhat susceptible to injury. Maybe I run into things that I shouldn’t run into but that’s the way I’ve played rugby my whole life.

“I’m still ambitious, I want to achieve things, win things. But at the same time, I’m just so happy to be playing. I haven’t forgotten that time I injured the neck, how fortunate I am to be just playing, throwing and kicking a ball around with the lads.”

For all he’s had smashed, that basic love remains intact. Long may he run.


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