Felix Jones has packed more into his coaching career than most will in a lifetime. In the last four years, he has dealt the highest highs and the lowest lows.
As his career in the technical box was taking off, the tragic death of Anthony Foley ripped the heart and soul out of Munster. Jones, alongside Jerry Flanery, was left to pick up the pieces and soldier on through one the great tragedies to hit the southern province.
He’ll probably never appreciate it fully but that 2016-2017 season saw the whole of Munster go on a journey that, in many ways, made fans out of us all. Despite their best efforts though, silverware alluded them.
More heartbreak would follow in the intervening years as Munster’s long-awaited search for a first trophy since 2011 continued. Jones would step away from the club at the end of last season, however, not even he could have known what was round the corner.
While adjusting to his first season out of rugby since childhood, Jones got a phone call from an old mentor that would ultimately change his life forever. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup fast approaching, an unfortunate illness meant Swys de Bruin had to step down from his coaching role with South Africa.
Head coach, Rassie Erasmus had one replacement in mind. A man whom he had tried to tempt into the set-up previously.
Erasmus wanted Jones.
Luckily, the timing was right, Erasmus got his man and two months later, South Africa had the Webb Ellis trophy. At 32, Jones is Ireland’s first and only Rugby World Cup winner. It’s been a long, arduous road filled with tragedy and triumph. In his own words, it’s been a rollercoaster.
“The last four years have been crazy,” Jones said.
“That first year [with Munster] was just, I still think about it regularly…
“Myself and Jerry [Flannery], I think he said this once publicly, that Axel (Anthony Foley) game, the Glasgow one. If we never coached another game, I would have been happy with my coaching career for the rest of my life.
“That day was just, it was just, it was different.
“Over the last three years, I suppose getting to the semi-final and losing out to Saracens that year and then the final of the PRO 14 and losing.
“And then it was just semi-final, semi-final, semi-final, semi-final again in Europe and the PRO 14. Again, losing to Saracens and Leinster, obviously Racing as well.
“This year, I mean it’s just been a rollercoaster. I’ve experienced a lot of good days and bad days. So, I would say you definitely have to be able to roll with it.”
That famous win over England was followed by a week-long tour of South Africa that Jones admits was “a bit of a blur”.
However, he cannot get away from the fact that November’s victory was a hugely symbolic moment for the nation.
“I didn’t know what to expect and the guys, the South Africans, were saying it was going to blow my mind but I think it actually blew their minds.
“We were all flying out at different stages, some of us were flying via Korea and others via Singapore, all different ways. We went in groups, so some of us were still in Japan when Siya (Kolisi) and them were landing in South Africa, and even then the scenes, the footage of them landing was crazy.
“Landing then ourselves and we did about five to seven days… it’s a bit of a blur, I won’t lie! I’m not sure what was more intense, the actual World Cup or the celebrations after!
“There were so many people. It’s very hard for us to understand just how many people there are in South Africa and I still don’t think I really get how much it means to them. There’s so much to rugby and South Africa. It’s a very symbolic thing for South Africa to win the World Cup. So it was some experience.”
They weren’t just partying in South Africa, however. Back in Ireland, Jones’ boyhood club, Seapoint, were also celebrating one of their own becoming a world champion.
He may have left the club well over a decade ago but you never forget your roots.
Upon his return to Ireland, Jones scheduled a long-overdue visit back to where it all began, medal in tow, to say thank you to the community who helped get him to where he is today.
“Yeah, I went back the same night they had been awarded a grant so that was a great night up in the club.
“They were doing an auction and there was a really good vibe around the place, it was a great opportunity to go back up and say thanks to a lot of people who would have helped me along the way.
“Seapoint, it’s not like they’re one of the best AIL teams in Ireland or anything like that, but what they do have is a phenomenal community spirit. Especially coaching, or as a player, there are a lot of ups and downs and it was nice to be able to share one of the nicer moments with those people.
“Also, to see a lot of new faces in the club because I hadn’t been up for a while, obviously spending a lot of time down in Limerick. A lot of new faces and it was great to see a good vibrancy there, and of course some of the older guys still sitting in the corner in their usual spots.”
So what’s next? Jones admits he doesn’t know. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he’s earned the right to a break following four tumultuous years that have seen him go from his lowest point to his highest.
However, it’s clear from speaking to Jones that there’s plenty more learning to be done. This man is nowhere near finished.
“I don’t know is the honest answer. I’d love to say but I don’t know.
“I do think it’s important that I try to see different environments. I think the way rugby is going, generally speaking, it appears as though it is becoming a more globalised game in terms of what teams in the south (southern hemisphere) are doing compared to teams in the north (northern hemisphere).
“Teams in the north are trying to do what teams in the south are doing. There is now, more coaches crossing the hemispheres and styles of play are being mixed around a bit and more players are moving all over the place so ideas are being shared.
“I think it is important to see different (cultures). There are so many different ways to play rugby and I don’t think there is one singular right way or wrong way.
“It’s just about getting a full-on commitment and alignment with which the group of players or management or an organisation and being so committed and aligned to one thing.
“And even if it is the worst plan in the world I think you can make it work as long as it is tight and people are committed to it and there is no ego involved and it is just what is best for that team. I think you can then achieve something special and I think that was the case with South Africa.”
Former international rugby player and South African World Cup-winning coach Felix Jones was pictured at the launch of the AIB Future Sparks Festival 2020, an innovative careers festival for senior cycle students, which is taking place on March 26th in the RDS. To launch this year’s festival, AIB brought together some of the speakers taking part including Felix Jones, Irish singer-songwriter Erica Cody, Mayo footballer Stephen Coen, artist Maser, Ahmad Mu’azzam, founder of Evocco, Irish sprinter Phil Healy and fashion designer Sorcha O’Raghallaigh.
For more information, please visit www.AIB.ie/FutureSparks