He is the Dubliner who made his name with Munster; and the Irishman attempting to plot a path past his compatriots while ensconced with the Springboks. What is more, at the end of this World Cup, he will join the England set-up of Steve Borthwick. South Africa’s fascinating encounter with Ireland on Saturday could be billed as the best defence on the planet against the best attack, and Felix Jones will have pondered all sorts of subtle details during the lead-up.
A certain mystique surrounds Jones, and not just because he was the one flashing the traffic lights down to the Stade de Marseille pitch during the Springboks’ 18-3 win over Scotland. Interviews with him are hard to find and rare media appearances actively seek to avoid controversy or conflict. At a press conference in Toulon last week, he politely declined to offer his opinion on who would be South Africa’s toughest pool-stage opponents. His role in the 2019 World Cup triumph carried an air of espionage, too.
“Felix is extremely astute when it comes to analysing a game, especially individuals, and trying to put moments into perspective,” remembers former Springboks back-rower Francois Louw, part of that champion squad four years ago.
“With these big games on big stages, there is a lot of pressure and anxiety and nerves and you’re pitting your team’s strategy against that of the team you’re up against.
“He was a specialist within our group and a large part of his role was analysing the opposition and looking for weaknesses to exploit – kinks in individuals’ games, what makes them tick and how you rock the boat. At the end of the day, it’s a physical game we play and you try to shake up the other side a bit, whether that’s your opposite number or another individual within their team.”
Modest and well-regarded are recurring descriptions of a 36-year-old who has already garnered rich experience. Jones spent most of his playing career in Munster’s back three and won 13 Test caps before retiring in 2015 due to a neck injury. Two years later, having joined Munster’s backroom staff under Rassie Erasmus, he was seconded to Ireland’s summer tour party by Joe Schmidt.
Erasmus whisked him into the Springboks fold for the World Cup, where he would join two more ex-Munster employees in Jacques Nienaber and Aled Walters. That group, one gathers from various testimonies, covered all bases with their complementary personalities. Jones replaced attack coach Swys de Bruin yet was officially assigned to the role of ‘defence consultant’, with Erasmus saying that his players “were interested in having more analysis of defensive patterns and structures”.
Coaching requires soft social skills and Louw recalls a few amusing attempts to break the ice with Irish-Afrikaans. Jones also impressed with his versatility.
“With him being recently on the field [as a player] it meant that he would be involved in sessions with his boots on,” Louw adds. “He wasn’t coming from a pedestal position where he was dictating. He actively sought to engage and that gave him an edge with that buy-in from the guys. When it was time to stand in between the poles for conditioning, he would make his exit… but the rest of the time he’d be running with the boys.
“When I think back, it wasn’t often that you saw him when he was away from the field that he wasn’t in front of a laptop doing additional analysis or pulling boys aside here or there saying ‘maybe we could do this’ or ‘maybe we could tweak this’. I’d say he played a good part in our campaign and winning it.”
Scan highlights of South Africa’s 2019 and you will see Erasmus turning to high-five Jones after a runaway try against Canada, created by an Elton Jantjies cross-kick from the restart. ‘Chasing the Sun’, a stirring documentary of the tournament from Supersport, depicts Jones in his natural habitat. Prior to the quarter-final thrashing of Japan, he helps Nienaber with a demonstration of defensive spacing. In another clip, Jones suggests that South Africa should do their utmost to make the game into an anaerobic tussle rather than play into Japan’s strengths as Ireland and Scotland had done earlier in the tournament.
“Whistle to whistle, we ramp it up physically,” he says. “Then, during the breaks, we take our time. We don’t try to do what Ireland and Scotland did, which was match them for tempo the whole time.”
Ahead of the final, Jones compiled a dossier of England’s back-field catchers and stressed that the Springboks would beat defenders because their opponents swarmed without always sticking tackles.
“They miss a s---load of tackles,” he is shown as saying in another team presentation. “Don’t tell me Owen Farrell missing the most tackles at the World Cup is a good thing.”
Covid disruptions have compromised everyone during the current World Cup cycle and Jones has spoken about how he and his family stayed in South Africa for six months around the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour, his two boys going to school in Paarl. Erasmus and Nienaber, cited as huge influences and close friends, later used him as a conduit between the Springboks and European clubs. Jones has visited Premiership and Top 14 sides, keeping tabs on players of interest to South Africa.
It is understood that he has now taken the reins of the Springboks attack. At the end of March, when SA Rugby announced he would be leaving, Jones was granted his very own press release in which Erasmus declared himself “saddened” and saluted a coach who “willingly took on extra responsibilities” and “evolved”. Jones himself stressed that his commitment was “unquestionable”. Whatever his remit with England from 2024 and beyond, Borthwick has bagged a good one. But Jones has work to do before his next adventure.