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Jones building case for defence as England prepare for Ireland visit

Nine years ago this weekend, Felix Jones came off the bench to help Ireland close out a Six Nations win over England that put them on course for back-to-back titles.

Now he finds himself in the opposition camp, striving to prevent his home nation’s march towards a second successive Grand Slam.

In what is just his fourth game as England defence coach, Jones is tasked with stymying a well-oiled Irish attack that has scored 45 tries in their last eight games. England, meanwhile, are licking their wounds following a fourth successive loss to Scotland and must avoid a fifth straight reverse against Ireland if they are to keep their faint championship hopes alive.

That substitute appearance against England in 2015 was Jones’ second Six Nations appearance, and also his last. He suffered a neck injury later that year while playing for Munster, which forced the full-back into retirement aged just 28.

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England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth admits the side were not themselves against Scotland and plan to make vast improvements as they host Ireland next in the Six Nations

His playing days were cruelly cut short but Jones’ start in coaching suggests a long and prosperous career. The 36-year-old arrived at Twickenham after four years with South Africa where he won two Rugby World Cups, beating England en route to lifting the trophy in both 2019 and 2023.

He has yet to taste victory against Ireland, however. The Springboks were narrowly defeated in the pool stages of last year’s Rugby World Cup, and it was a similar story when he returned home to Dublin in November 2022. On both occasions South Africa were errant from the tee – had Handre Pollard been at 10 the results could have easily gone the other way.

Munster technical coach Felix Jones along with players Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony in 2017
Image: Jones (left) coached and played alongside Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony (right) and Conor Murray (centre) at Munster

While South Africa and Ireland, along with New Zealand, are currently the best sides in the world, England very much remain a work in progress. Jones brought South Africa’s blitz defence blueprint with him when he returned to the northern hemisphere but there have been teething problems, although defence was far from the biggest concern after their abject performance in Edinburgh.

Former Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber stressed that it takes 14 games to bed in the defensive system that South Africa have perfected. “In 2018 we won 50 per cent of our Test matches and the majority we lost because of our defence,” he said. “But in 2019 we only lost one. It takes time.”

South Africa assistant coach Felix Jones with his winners medal after the 2023 Rugby World Cup final
Image: Jones won two Rugby World Cups while working as an assistant coach with South Africa

The problem for Jones is not only the short amount of time he has had with the England squad. His former colleague Nienaber has since pitched up at Leinster, who are the bulk suppliers to the Ireland team. They are well-versed on the blitz defence, both in how to execute and exploit it.

“There are opportunities in attack to take and capitalise on those rushing defenders,” said Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw. “The aim of the system is to create that chaos, put skills under pressure.

“For us, we’ll need to be calm, composed and be ready to take opportunities when they come.”

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Given England’s issues in attack, there is extra pressure on Jones to quickly develop a tenacious and miserly defence. They won some big defensive turnovers against Scotland, only for them to be undone by handling errors and poor decision-making from some of their more experienced players.

England certainly possess athletes that could shine in a blitz system but they lack the nous, for now at least, and Jones’ cause is not helped by the lack of clarity when it comes to team selection. Injuries have certainly played their part but the constant chopping and changing, particularly at half-back and midfield, makes it harder for everyone to familiarise themselves with – and implement – the new system.

Felix Jones scores a try against Georgia in 2014
Image: Jones won 13 caps for Ireland and scored three tries

England will make life difficult for Ireland at Twickenham and they have raised their game against Andy Farrell’s men in recent years, when red cards proved extremely costly, but the visitors boast the handling skills to get around a rush defence and have plenty of kicking options to expose space in the backfield.

Jones has pages of information on Ireland and is bound to have a few tricks up his sleeve, but these sides are at different stages in their respective journeys. While England seek consistency, Ireland are chasing championships.

Jones will prove to be a quality addition to England’s coaching set-up but there may be some more suffering required before they begin to reap the blitz benefits. His wait for a first win over Ireland and his old team-mates could go on.

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