"Setting the Benchmark" - Felix Jones On Understanding Ireland and Defensive Expectations for Six Nations Collision - Ruck

“Setting the Benchmark” – Felix Jones On Understanding Ireland and Defensive Expectations for Six Nations Collision

When a side the quality of Ireland come to town, any host will need to have their defensive weapons primed and ready for the challenge. The task of nullifying some of world rugby’s most explosive carriers is no easy feat, and England defence coach Felix Jones is more than aware of the threat that has come over from the Emerald Isle.

In a calendar schedule that includes a battle with South Africa and a trio of fixtures against the All Blacks, England get to test out the full extent of their defensive strengths in tomorrow’s Six Nations battle against Ireland. The fourth round is expected to be England’s toughest yet, as they take on the number two ranked side in the world.

Felix Jones, Defensive Coach of England during the England Captains Run at Twickenham Stadium, London on 8 March 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

A native Dubliner, Felix Jones made 13 caps for the Irish national team amidst spells with Leinster and Munster. The former fullback-cross-wing has previously tackled the might of Ireland, as he took up a spot amongst the Springboks coaching staff back in 2021. Now settled in to his new home in Twickenham, Jones discussed what he expects Ireland to bring in tomorrow’s monumental match-up, and the Irish system that has produced such an all-conquering side.

“I coached against Ireland with South Africa, in November 2021, at the Aviva Stadium. Just the exact same as now, you treat it professionally. There’s no difference really.

“Well, Ireland are one of the teams setting the benchmark at the moment. There will be a lot of teams trying to emulate that. The Irish system is, having come through that system myself as a player and a coach, I have an understanding of how fine-tuned it is, how impressive it is and some of the amazing work that’s been done there.

Richard Wigglesworth, Attack Coach of England and Felix Jones, Defensive Coach of England during the England Captains Run at Twickenham Stadium, London on 9 February 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

“The amazing individuals that make that work from a grassroots level right down. So we’re obviously, my situation with England, it’s early days still. We’re trying to build on our own performances yet, so I suppose that building blocks behind that will be another few steps down the road for us. But you look at Ireland’s performances over the last three, four years, I think everyone would be looking at them thinking that’s a very impressive team to try to emulate.”

Having such insider knowledge with the back-to-back Rugby World Cup winning Springboks, Jones is in an authoritative position when naming who is truly the best team in the world. However, the Irishman could not pick between the Springboks, All Blacks or Andy Farrell’s side, and believes that the trio of test match titans are inseparable at the top of the tree.

Conor Murray of Ireland looks to clear the ball as Maro Itoje of England looks to block during the Autumn Nations Cup match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on November 21 2020. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“There’s very little between say South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand. Ireland could have very easily been in that World Cup final for Jordie Barrett making a pretty miraculous try-saving tackle, how he held up the ball underneath the maul. Between those three teams it’s very, very tight. The world rankings are there for a reason. Is it one, two, three, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand? I think it’s very tight between them.”

Jones was asked in today’s press conference, whether England’s defensive effort will be considerable more than in their recent performances. The former Munster wing expressed his certainty that his side can rise to the occasion, and match up with the threat that the opponents are bringing across the Irish Sea.

Bundee Aki of Ireland on the break during the Guinness Six Nations Match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on February 23. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“It will be considerable, because Ireland are a great team, their record speaks for itself. I think it’s two games in 22 that they’ve lost, so their ability to score tries from all over the field is impressive to see, the skillsets of the players, every single player is an option, a passing option, multiple players at the line, behind the line, kicking options.”

“In general the commitment levels from the defence, the continuous work in the week to improve their own individual skillsets with regard that. It’s a little bit of a system that some of them may not be used to from their club sides, but it’s been met with a lot of energy and commitment to improve upon errors and stretching skillsets.

Sam Underhill of England (Bath Rugby) during the an England Rugby Training session at the Brighton College, Sussex on the 19th June 2023 – PHOTO: Micah Crook/PPAUK

“It’s not just about stretching skillsets in attack, sometimes you have to stretch skillsets in defence as well. I’d say the general commitment has been great.”

Since settling into life at Pennyhill Park, Jones has been impressed by the versatility shown across the locks and back-row. Most notably, the defence coach praised George Martin and Ben Earl, as the adaptable forwards both earn themselves a start in tomorrow’s test match at Twickenham. Speaking on the two hard-hitting tacklers, Jones added;

“They’ve been two guys, George and Ben, who have been a pleasure to deal with. They’ve really thrown themselves at anything you ask of them really. They see the opportunity in everything, not the problems in anything.

Ben Earl of England celebrates during the Six Nations Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 10 February 2024 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Even though they might be covering one or two positions, they are two guys you can really rely on in terms of gobbling up the detail and they still won’t let you down. They have incredibly high work rates not just on the field but on the field as well in terms of their analysis. Those two guys in particular it has been a pleasure to work with them.”

Rounding off this defensive discussion, Jones highlighted how he is expecting some alterations to the Ireland side than from the one he came up against in the Rugby World Cup. The former Springboks Coaching Consultant assessed the changes of personnel in the Irish side, in what has been an interesting week of preparations for Jones.

Felix Jones, Defensive Coach of England during the England Captains Run at Twickenham Stadium, London on 8 March 2024 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

“There are a couple of changes of personnel there, but largely it’s a hugely consistent group of players who have been there together. There have probably been a couple of tweaks in terms of what they do, but it’s still done with the same amount of accuracy, intensity. You can see there is a lot of forethought in how they’re trying to approach the game, there are slight differences but you’re aware of the effectiveness of it.

“When you’re doing your analysis and trying to prepare for a team that has so many threats it makes it very interesting for you. You’ve really got to apply a lot of thought about how best to get an effective outcome and you learn quite a lot about watching it because you see things you maybe have not seen before. It’s been good to watch them again.”