Former Munster coach Felix Jones was strongly linked with a job in the Irish national team set-up but instead heads to the World Cup as part of the Springbok coaching team. Ireland-based journalist JONATHAN BRADLEY reports.
If there was an air of surprise in Ireland following the announcement that Jones, as well as his counterpart Jerry Flannery, would be leaving Munster at the end of last season, the sense of shock was larger still when it emerged earlier this week that the 32-year-old was on the brink of joining Rassie Erasmus and his Springbok set-up ahead of the World Cup.
It was only a matter of months prior that Jones, who retired prematurely thanks to a neck injury four years ago, was being mooted as a possibility for a role on the post-Joe Schmidt Ireland staff. It was, it seemed then, the logical progression of his coaching career that began only in 2016.
A Dublin native, Jones was a part of Ireland’s famed U20s Six Nations Grand Slammers in 2007 – a side that also contained Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Darren Cave and Ian Keatley – but after one appearance for his hometown team Leinster, made the move to Thomond Park and Munster.
Despite injuries taking their toll, he’d make almost 100 appearances in the red jersey, winning the Pro12 with the side in 2011, and leave his mark on the international scene too.
A largely quiet, yet intensely hard-working presence with an ability to play across the backline, he always seemed the archetypal Schmidt soldier and indeed won eight of his 13 Test caps under the Kiwi coach, a two-year international exile ending in the summer of 2013.
He remained in Schmidt’s plans right up until his forced retirement, when it was no surprise to see his services retained by Munster originally under the title of technical coach.
Initially working underneath Anthony Foley, the Munster great who had named Jones team captain on a handful of occasions, Erasmus would arrive as director of rugby and ultimately took on a greater level of authority following Foley’s shock passing in Paris on the eve of a Champions Cup clash with Racing 92.
With Jones promoted to attack and backline specialist, the Seapoint man evidently wasn’t carrying the can internally for Munster’s failure to turn regular semi-final spots into silverware and, after reportedly rebuffing an earlier approach from Erasmus to join him in South Africa, it was believed he’d continue his development at Munster while a role with Ireland on the 2017 tour to Japan hinted at a Test future with the national side.
‘The growing comes to you as a person as much as the place,’ he said of a likely contract extension only back in April.
‘But if you’re hungry enough you’ll try to keep learning. You’ll be found out if you’re not constantly driving or trying to be hungry. If you’re not trying to absorb and learn then you probably won’t last too long.’
What followed was an unusually messy divorce in the hyper-controlled world of Irish Rugby.
New contracts were on the table for both he and Flannery but, no sooner was the name Rob Howley floated in the national media as a possible addition to the ticket, and subsequent talk of a change of role and responsibility for Jones, that both were to depart.
It was a surprising development and a disappointing one for many who believed the former players were to be part of the long-term strategy in Limerick.
‘I am disappointed that Felix and Jerry are gone,’ no less a figure than Paul O’Connell told Newstalk Radio at the time. ‘I thought they were two fantastic coaches.
‘[They are] good guys who were well worth investing in and developing for the future.
‘So from that point of view I am very disappointed.’
Not out of work for long, the same week that his Munster replacement Stephen Larkham met the media for a first time, Jones’ next move has been confirmed, a short-term pact with South Africa to act as a defence consultant rather than a like-for-like replacement for former attack coach Swys de Bruin.
One thing is for sure … should that potential World Cup quarter-final between the Springboks and Schmidt’s side come to pass, Erasmus and co should have no shortage of insider info.