Felix Jones ready to face off against former mentor Joe Schmidt

Former Ireland and Munster fullback aims to have perfect send-off with South Africa before taking up coaching role with England after World Cup


The Springboks presented a former Irish international to the media for the second time in the week leading up to a World Cup final, but Felix Jones’ appearance came as a complete surprise.

The former Irish and Munster fullback, who captained his country 13 times between 2011 and 2015 under Joe Schmidt, would rather remain anonymous. His rare appearance at the Boks’ briefing in the grey suburbs of Presles, about 60 kilometers north of central Paris, was also his last. After Saturday’s final against New Zealand in the Stade de France (kick-off 9 p.m. local time/8 p.m. Irish), he will join England as an assistant coach. He won the World Cup with the Springboks four years ago.

When asked to sum up his time with the Springboks, he paused and seemed to get a little upset. “Hard question,” he replied. “I doubt I could summarize it. I would just like to express my sincere gratitude to the players, the staff, and the individuals in the background. I’ve been welcomed by the South African rugby community as a whole, the franchises, and the coaches. It’s been amazing.

He has some strong New Zealand links as well, having played with Doug Howlett and been coached by Rob Penney.

“Doug was my first roommate when I joined Munster as a young fullback/winger. I couldn’t believe my luck who I got roomed with,” he recalled happily. “I think Tony McGahan was our coach at that stage and I think he probably did that on purpose. I learned from one of the best there. Doug was a great mentor, a really good person, and somebody I stayed close with even after we retired from playing. I know he is now enjoying life back home.

“Rob [Penney] was a brilliant coach for my development. He changed the way I thought about the game, he really did. He changed the way even the current players in Munster, who still play and play for Ireland, played the game. Two great people.”

Jones cruelly missed out on the 2011 World Cup with an ankle injury sustained against France in a warm-up game and he didn’t make the cut in 2015 before retiring and becoming part of the Munster coaching set-up in 2016 as backs coach.

In 2019 he was brought aboard the Springboks coaching ticket. Having worked with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber at Munster facilitated a quick transition. “Slotting in was very straightforward,” he says.

Initially hired to analyse opposition defences, Jones admits his role has grown organically since then. Often based at home with his family in Ireland, from where he could maintain closer links with the Springboks’ northern hemisphere-based players, he has always been part of the squad when they have been in camp and playing matches. Moving to England will allow him to stay closer with his family.

“It’s been tricky, but we were out there [in South Africa] for a good while during the Lions tour [in 2021]. We had a really good experience there. My boys were in a school in Paarl. They are back in Dublin now so I’m looking forward after next week to get a bit of time at home.”

Within the Springboks team, he is held in the highest regard. Willie le Roux remarked of Jones’s “work ethic”: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without his laptop! It’s the way he engages with us, works, and communicates. He assists us with our strikes, our attack, and our backs. He is an amazing coach. It is an honor to collaborate with him. The Springboks will definitely miss him, in my opinion. I consider myself lucky to have collaborated with him.

“If I pass to one side, I tend to fall away, and the pass looks forward,” the inventive fullback continued, citing one small instance of how Jones has helped him. Thus, it involves sprinting ahead and keeping going forward.

Jones is “an amazing coach and person,” according to backrower Kwagga Smith, who also said that “he spends hours and hours on footage going through stuff.” He has made all of us Springboks better players.

Smith mentioned how Jones had practiced catching a little sooner. “Catch early and give yourself an extra 30 seconds to process the ball before deciding.”

Jones has always had a strong passion for the game, but during this World Cup he appeared to be more energetic as well as more noticeable. He explained the 16-15 comeback victory over England on Saturday by saying, “It was a World Cup semi-final.” On the scoreboard, we were lagging behind. We needed to come up with some fixes.

This is his final dance both with Schmidt in the opposing box and with the Springboks. As part of the Irish coaching ticket, Schmidt took Jones to Japan during the summer of 2017 and expressed serious concerns about his protégé playing for the Springboks prior to the 2019 World Cup.

Noting the All Blacks’ improvement since Schmidt and Jason Ryan became assistants, Jones said: “If I had to highlight one [area] I would say the ruck. It has been excellent. They do appear to be a very complete team. There has been development in their kicking game, the way they put you under pressure. I would say those two areas would be key.”

And so, the pupil comes up against the mentor.

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