Simon Lewis talks to Felix Jones about his new life on the other side of the white line.
Effort. Noun: A vigorous or determined attempt.
It was a quality never lacking in Felix Jones during a professional playing career cut short by injury 18 months ago. And in the transition to a new life on the other side of the white line, the full-back-turned-attack coach continues to demand it from himself and those he now oversees.
When the majority of those he coaches at Munster are former team-mates who have seen at first hand the all-or-nothing approach Jones exemplified as a player, it makes things a little easier for a man taking his first steps along the management path at the age of just 29.
“Felix, as a player, was definitely the most committed and hardened player I have ever played with,” Conor Murray said of Jones earlier this season. “It’s way easier to take what he says in meetings and be willing to do it because you know he has done it before and would be willing to do it for you again.”
Easier still when the coaching team he is now a part of, led by director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, is enjoying a purple patch forged in exceptional circumstances, just two of Munster’s four defeats this season inflicted since the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley last October sent the province reeling.
The attempt to do justice to Foley’s legacy has powered Munster to heights scarcely imaginable from a player group which scraped into the Champions Cup on the last day of last season and as one of Axel’s most trusted on-field lieutenants as a player, Jones is now helping to drive that momentum further as a part of the management.
“I think when I was a player it was a bit different (as a leader). Right now, I’m at the very beginning of my career as a coach and so I certainly don’t see myself like that anymore,” Jones said.
“I’ll be honest, I look to the players a lot and bounce things off them a lot and try to give them as much ownership as possible, that they’re comfortable with, as individuals and in their units, so that they can believe in it and take control.
“It’s definitely different to when I was a player, in my own mind, how I see myself with the group. I believe I’m very much in my first season back here and I’m just trying to learn and sponge up as much information as I can. And I know I’ll mess it up or make mistakes but as long as I know in my own mind that I gave it my best effort, and I do genuinely try to the best of my ability, then if I mess it up, so be it. I know it won’t be through a lack of effort.”
The same applies to the players in an environment where they are encouraged to play what they see in front of them. If it doesn’t come off, no blame.
“You tried your best, you thought it was the best thing to do at that moment in time and you prepared for it, if it doesn’t come off, well then we say ‘hard luck, go again’.
“So it’s just effort. That’s how I applied myself as a player as well, whether it was a fitness test or in a match, just to give everything my best effort. If at the end of the day it wasn’t good enough, then at least I’d know I’d done it wholeheartedly.
“When I retired I was asked if I had regrets, and everyone says ‘I wish I went on this tour or made this team’ or whatever and of course I do, but I know, deep, deep, deep down, and it’s solid, that every time I stepped into the gym or onto the pitch, that I gave my best effort.”
Closing in on a top-two finish in the Guinness PRO12 and a home semi-final in May is one thing for a side that needed a desperate push to make the top six in 2015-16. Being in a home Champions Cup quarter-final tomorrow after two years of pool failure and what seemed an extremely difficult draw this time around is the stuff of dreams, surely, for a rookie coach?
Jones offers a wry smile at the suggestion. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster with plenty of ups and downs this year. It feels like I’m still getting used to it. It certainly has gone by fast. We’re already at the business end of the season and if things are going well, we’ve 10 or 11 weeks left to the end. And then the flip side is we could only have six weeks left if it goes the other way.”
A neck injury brought a premature end to Jones’s playing career in October 2015 and having been unable to bow out on one’s own terms clearly requires a big mental transition, not alone when he was thrust back into the Munster Rugby melting pot as part of the Erasmus coaching ticket alongside Foley, defence coach Jacques Nienaber, and scrum coach Jerry Flannery.
“Being honest, I probably still am dealing with it. For sure, I still have thoughts of wanting to play again, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t but it’s becoming less and less. It’s a voice that’s getting quieter and quieter.
“So how do you deal with it? I’m just going full on in the capacity that I can, which is coaching. Whatever it is, doing my analysis or anything else, I’m just throwing myself at it fully and trying not to harbour too many thoughts around ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great if I was still playing’, because you can’t.
“I’m still doing my Masters degree (in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology), still have a thesis to do, and that will take me a significant block of time which I’ll have to put aside at some stage.
“But that’s me. It’s all or nothing in pretty much everything I do. So if it’s playing a game of five a side or if it’s coaching or doing the laundry or sweeping my front garden, it’s full on.”
The all-out approach, Jones admitted, has been a coping mechanism of sorts for he believes nothing could have readied him for being told he could not play rugby again.
“I think what IRUPA (Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association) do is unbelievable but nothing can fully prepare you (for a forced retirement). I can’t speak for other people but for me, I always knew I wanted to be a professional rugby player and everything I did as a young fella was leading up to that.”
A day trip from Limerick back to his childhood in south Dublin brought all that back to Jones the other day.
“I went for a run along the seafront up to Dun Laoghaire the other day.
“I used to do that when I was really young, like 10, 11, 12 years of age, and even then I was doing it, whether I was conscious of it or not, I was doing something physical because I knew it would improve me as a rugby player and improve my chances of playing professional rugby. Even at a young age I had some sort of a feeling that I wanted to be a professional rugby player.
“So when that’s all gone... nothing can really prepare you for it. That all came back to me on that run, it was mad. That’s another thing that you miss, actually being able to get out there and compete and to train as hard as you do, on the edge, which I can’t do now.
“Sometimes myself and Jerry will go ‘there’. Myself and Fla, we joke, we call it The Island, this dark place you take yourself to when you train.
“You can never really stay there too long, you just visit and then you have to get out because it’s so inhospitable.
“So we joke sometimes, ‘going back to The Island there for a couple of minutes!’ Yeah, that’s something I miss, massively, training like that.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved