Just 27 months after his playing career was cut short, Felix Jones is developing quite the reputation as an innovative attack coach. Speculation of offers abound but Jones is keen to deflect the limelight and focus on adding more strings to Munster’s bow.
You get the sense that even Felix Jones would agree he does not handle praise well. Which in the current climate makes for an uncomfortable time for Munster’s backline and attack coach.
It is just 27 months since the full-back was forced to call it quits on his playing career for the province and Ireland, a neck injury bringing a premature end at the age of just 28.
Fast forward to 2018 and the plaudits for the young coach are turning from a trickle into a stream.
A secondment to Joe Schmidt’s coaching staff during Ireland’s summer tour to Japan was Jones’s reward for a rookie coaching season under Rassie Erasmus at Munster, with the South African director of rugby enhancing his and fellow assistant Jerry Flannery’s roles ahead of pre-season and in advance of his departure back to the SARU.
This season has seen Munster’s horizons broaden in terms of gameplan as Erasmus, who promised to add more strings to the bow following deeply disappointing defeats to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final last April and a resounding thumping by Scarlets in the following month’s PRO12 final, empowered Jones to take the side’s attacking options to the next level.
Incoming head coach Johann van Graan has pledged to do the same and there have been more than a few glimpses of Jones’s good work to that effect in the campaign to this point, not least last Sunday in Paris, where Munster engineered three fine tries against Racing 92 and could, perhaps should, have had a couple more.
That they did not and Munster lost the chance to book a Champions Cup quarter-final spot a week early is why any praise of the good deeds tends to fall on the deaf ears of a 30-year-old coach who feels he is still very much in the foothills of a steep learning curve.
Never mind reports that Erasmus was keen to take him back to South Africa and into the Springbok coaching set-up.
That subject comes up towards the end of a lengthy interview with Jones this week as Munster prepared for tomorrow’s must-win Champions Cup pool finale against Castres at Thomond Park.
There is no avoiding it, these reports that the man who set him on the coaching path wanted the young coach to join him in the challenge of restoring South Africa’s fortunes on the international rugby stage.
Could Jones confirm an offer was made?
“I’d rather not speak about it if I’m being honest. Whatever’s out there is out there.”
That there was an offer has since been confirmed to the Irish Examiner but despite Jones’s reluctance, it would be interesting to get some sort of comment from the man himself.
Was he flattered by that and his brief spell with Ireland? Even removing the personal angle, are those things good signs that Munster are going in the right direction?
“All I’ll say is that I’m working as hard as I can for Munster and getting to work with Ireland over the summer was great. I’m just working as hard as I can.”
This is not to portray Jones as being in any way obstructive, he is not. It is just that when things get a little too close to boosting his own position, the coach’s inherent modesty kicks in. It requires a lot of careful phrasing to elicit an equivalent response.
For Jones, it is all about the players. No matter what system he places them in, it is nothing without their approval of it.
It is put to him, for instance, that the attacking flair on display under the roof of the U Arena last Sunday’s is indicative of players loving what they are doing having been given the license to do it.
“Yeah, the guys are pretty open to doing things differently, maybe, to what they were doing last week or last year or before that or next week. You have to be, you have to adapt.
“The main thing for me, learning now and over the last 18 months, is that whatever the plan might be, as long as there is agreement on the plan, and everyone agrees on it, you have a great chance.
“It could be the worst plan and believe me, I’ve come up with some of the worst plans ever, but if you can get buy-in and people to agree on it then you have a chance. That’s where I’m at, learning-wise.
Whether that means Erasmus’s pledge to add more strings in the wake of those losses to Saracens and Scarlets is happening is less clear to Jones.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think those games were spotlighted because we came up short and they were the biggest games of the season. On the whole, it’s sometimes difficult to see because you’re in it so much on the day to day that you don’t maybe see how it’s going.
"I think those two games, in particular, we probably didn’t execute a lot of stuff defensively, attack-wise, kicking game, whatever, and rightfully so, those were the biggest games of the year and that cost us.
“Across the board, we try and improve every day in all our areas. In attack, defence, kicking game, at the set-piece, basic skills, kicking, passing, so I don’t know.”
Surely Conor Murray goal-kicking from long-range, as he did last month at Leicester and again last weekend in Paris, suggests additions to the game plan, as does the appearance of backs in attacking lineouts.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “There’s no question. There’s a couple of things we’re trying but Conor was practising his kicking like that for the last three or four years. Sometimes the opportunity doesn’t come in a game or there’s not the right feel for it.
“Everything’s still... it’s hard for me to comment because I feel I’m so in the mix of it, right in the thick of it, I need to be able to have a bit of time off and be able to stand back and take stock.
“That’s what we did at the end of last season with Rassie and Jacques (Nienaber, then defence coach), myself and Fla. We said, right, this is where we’re weak, deficient, what can we do to improve it? So we started planning to do that.
“We’re almost at the end of that first block where we can do that and obviously Johann’s come in and JP’s (new defence coach JP Ferreira) come in now and had an influence, so it’s hard to build a picture at the moment if that makes sense.
Van Graan has, Jones said, “been very good” in his encouragement, although the assistant coach is realistic enough not to set unattainable goals for Munster’s attacking play.
“I don’t think you ever really get there.
"You might say you saw some things at the weekend that you thought were really good but some of our passing cost us dearly because we missed out on two or three opportunities that if the passing was bang on it would have resulted in, possibly, certain tries.
“I don’t think you ever get there, fortunately, because it’s always a challenge, and unfortunately, because I can’t say I’ve ever been involved in a perfect game or seen a player have THE perfect performance.
“I think Alex Wootton in the Cheetahs game this season, for 55 minutes, had one of the best games I’ve ever seen from a Munster player.
"I thought he was phenomenal, and then eventually I think he knocked the ball on or something like that. But to see a perfect game from 15 guys? I don’t think it’s possible.
“That’s the brilliant thing as well, isn’t it? That’s the challenging part, striving to get as close as you can (to perfection).”
In any case, it is the players who must attain that objective. Coaches are merely facilitators.
“It’s exciting but it’s the players that are really putting in all the work. It’s encouraging guys to use what’s within their skillset and strengths.
"I mean, I’m not expecting Killer (prop Dave Kilcoyne) to throw a 20m miss-pass but other guys can and I suppose it’s trying to embrace everyone.
“There’s so many different skillsets and so many different ways of doing things and it’s never possible to get a perfect gameplan to embrace all of them.
"That’s why rugby’s so good, when you have (150kgs Racing prop Ben) Tameifuna at the weekend on one side of it and then you have (87kgs Racing scrum-half) Maxime Machenaud, these two completely different looking players playing the same game.
"So embracing it all is probably the most important thing. If it works it works, but it doesn’t always work.”
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