Steve Borthwick had described him earlier this week as one of the most intense people he had ever met, so it was little surprise to see a series of notes scribbled in black biro on the left hand of Felix Jones, England’s new defence coach as he sat down in a function room at the squad’s hotel near their Girona training camp in the Costa Brava.
“It is some of the key points I want to make sure I am hitting and some drills for certain players,” explained Jones, with a smile. “Probably too many of them.”
Details, it seems, have always been important to the softly-spoken Jones, the great-grandson of the renowned Irish architect Alfred Edwin Jones, which explains why Borthwick, renowned for his meticulous approach, made a beeline for him when assembling his coaching team last year.
Jones’ commitment to the Springboks ensured he could only join after their World Cup win and has come in to take charge of the defence, with Kevin Sinfield, who is leaving at the end of the season, switching to a skills role.
“I would have been in intermittent contact with him [Borthwick] over the last four or five years for various reasons,” added Jones, who won 15 caps for Ireland. “I worked a lot with Aled Walters before and he then went to work with Steve at Leicester. When I was with the Springboks, we had a number of players who were playing there and Leicester were performing very well so there was the odd opportunity to grab a chat. That’s how the relationship began.”
That Jones now joins Walters as the second former member of Rassie Erasmus’s coaching staff to be recruited by Borthwick is no coincidence. But what England supporters will be wondering if the man who could be seen holding ‘traffic lights’ to send messages from the coaching box during the Springboks’ victory over Scotland in Marseille in the World Cup pool match in September will bring with him similar innovations?
“That type of thing was trying to find different ways of doing things that could optimise communication,” said Jones. “The context of it is probably lost on most people except for the people who are directly involved and understand it. Most coaching teams are trying, maybe not like that, to find ways of gaining a tactical advantage or doing something in their environment that can improve learning or engaging people with other expertise to do it better. That was a different way of doing it. I don’t think you will be seeing it at Twickenham.”
So no traffic lights, while talk of persuading Borthwick to consider the Springboks’ policy during the World Cup of opting for 7-1 split between forwards and backs including the final victory over New Zealand, also seems unlikely for now.
But what is clear that Jones will bring a mindset that has been shaped from his Springboks’ experience, and a relationship with Erasmus, who first offered him a full-time coaching role with Munster after the late Anthony Foley had asked him to remain with the Irish province after a neck injury forced an end to his playing career at the age of 28 in 2015.
“I was very lucky when I first went into coaching,” he added. “I had a number of guys that were very influential for me, guys like Rassie to begin with, Anthony Foley, Joe Schmidt. the coaching network is actually quite open to talking about it. So you end up having quite a wealth of people that can just help you along the way. Everyone shapes you a little bit differently and you take little bits from them all.
“Everyone there (South Africa) is very open and understands what professional rugby is. There is nothing to talk about really. Most teams are looking at other teams and seeing what certain teams do well. Not all of it is transferable. New Zealand can only play like New Zealand. South Africa can only play like South Africa. Ireland can only play like Ireland. But there are certain smaller things you can potentially tweak or amend to suit the way you want to play.”
South Africa’s bold innovations appeared to go hand-in-hand with a prescriptive, top-down coaching style, championed by American sports such as the NFL and seemingly at odds with rugby’s tradition of developing independent players capable of playing ‘heads-up rugby’ and solving problems on the pitch by themselves.
Jones admits it is a tough balance to strike, with the exponential growth of ‘real-time’ data available to coaches providing a stark contrast to when he was a player.
“It’s a really tough question to answer,” he added. “It’s a marriage of them taking ownership - it could be a decision-making thing or a tactical approach that is aligned with the way the coach has seen it. If you strike a balance that you have trust in a player to do something slightly different based on the amount of times they have been in that situation, the amount of knowledge they have gained, the feel they have.
“But if a player is getting it wrong nine times out of ten, then you know there is a big issue. Finding the calibration of that is important. It is high stakes. It is tough because you lose a Test match, you lose for England, no-one will take that lightly.
And what is one take from his time with the Springboks on what it takes to be a world champion side? “It is not always transferable,” he added. “But for anyone who has played rugby, you get a feeling when a side is very tight and just won’t give up and will stay in the fight and be a very difficult team to beat. You get a feeling when you are part of those teams.”