Of all the departures from Munster over the last few seasons, the loss of Felix Jones is perhaps the most under-appreciated.
Forced into premature retirement following a neck injury sustained while playing a Pro12 game against Glasgow at a time when many believed the full-back should have been in Ireland’s World Cup squad last October, it is Jones’s calm authority in the backfield and in the dressing room Anthony Foley feels is being sorely missed.
“Nobody planned on Felix going,” the head coach said. “He was massively important around the squad, having that solidity at the back; the chat, saying the right things, it was excellent. He came back from (missing) the World Cup and was obviously crestfallen in terms of everything that had happened to him and he’d done everything that was required to get into the World Cup squad and in a lot of people’s point of view he was unfortunate to miss out.
“When he came back in here you wouldn’t have thought he was left out of the World Cup. He came back in, worked harder than anybody else. You could see it was hurting him but he didn’t let it fester, didn’t go looking for sympathy, he got on with his job and was excellent. Then getting injured was cruel. Nobody wanted to think about him retiring and finishing up but unfortunately that’s what happened.
“Now Andrew Conway is doing a great job in trying to replace him, and Zebo at the weekend, but with the best will in the world they don’t have the chat or that level at the back that Felix had in bossing other people.
“It’s not in their nature at the moment but we’ll be striving to develop it with them. It’s something that has been sorely missed during that time.”
Foley believes Conway can become as good as Jones was in Munster’s No.15 jersey and then claim the version in green at Test level. But it will take time.
“Jonesey’s ability to do his homework is frightening. He’d know what leg nearly all the opposition would kick off, what was their favourite type of kick. When somebody had the ball he’d already made the assessment of the likelihood of them kicking it. He’d have all that and he’d have himself and his back three set up, their line as well. When you take that out it takes a while for somebody to go in and boss it.
“Andrew Conway’s doing well. When I first saw him at Blackrock and playing in Irish schools he was a 15. He was a 15 for Leinster U20s and playing the A games and a 15 that could pick and hit a line.
“When he came here he was always saying he wanted to have a crack at 15 because he felt it was his more natural position to pick up from an attacking point of view. Felix could always pick a line and score tries and come through. Andrew’s aerial skills as well are up there with Felix’s and he’s as brave under the high ball as Felix was. But Andrew needs to get another few years of constant chat and awareness and being shown up, making mistakes and have the ability to fix them, figure stuff out in the backfield and become an international full-back. He doesn’t back out of a challenge and hopefully one day he might get rewarded.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved