Thursday 14 December 2017

Liberated Jones still has lofty Ireland ambitions

Felix Jones
Felix Jones
David Kelly

David Kelly

He's still only 26, but Munster and Ireland full-back Felix Jones has compiled enough life experiences to rival someone a decade older.

Sadly, the former Seapoint graduate -- he of the ungainly, but effective Paula Radcliffe running style -- has spent too much time being prodded and probed by folks in medical suits rather than tracksuits.

This season, though, he has forged some blessed relief from the multiple injuries that have carved a host of scars and incisions upon his frame.

It is rarefied air he breathes now, that of a liberated professional, no longer coursed by endlessly mocking physical limitations.

The physical has affected the mental -- it must.

Selfishness has rarely found a place in his intellectual wardrobe, as those who knew him in his Leinster days well recall, and now, this selflessness is even more prominent.

It doesn't eclipse ambition, merely offers equilibrium.

The man bound for the last World Cup until his ankle was smashed (even if his Munster mates jibed that he wouldn't have been selected anyway!), simply cannot afford to gamble with his emotions.

He saw Munster and Ireland coaches leave their posts, knew he had struggled to fulfil himself and tried so hard not to get stung by his inability to impress each as much as he would have liked, were it not for his disobedient body.

He would train with Paul O'Connell, the freakish second-row lifting rowing machines single-handedly, despite the minor inconvenience of a broken arm or a shattered torso -- sometimes both.

O'Connell would then storm back into the team, freighting the wall of the gym atop his shoulders, leaving Jones to gape, awe-struck at a seeming superhero whose miraculous powers of recovery made him look like Mr Bean.

ACCELERATE

But he's over that now, he likes to think (we'll accelerate past the minor ankle turn this term, shall we?).

A summer tour under Joe Schmidt and a flirtation with the squad that almost beat the All Blacks in November has tickled his palate anew.

The Wolfhounds play England in Gloucester later this month and Jones is eagerly eyeing a return to the English midlands following this weekend's Heineken Cup clash at Kingsholm.

"I'd love to be involved in any 'A' game or senior game, it's any rugby player's ambition to play for their country," says the player who joined Munster in 2009, but whose progress has been stunted by serious neck, shoulder and ankle setbacks.

"I was up at the camp before the New Zealand game. Obviously, with the New Zealand game coming up, there was huge excitement, the more I can get up there the better.

"Joe has an incredible knowledge base of the game. It's not just the Heineken games he has been watching, he has been at the Pro12 games also.

"It's out of my control, of course; I can't make him pick me; all I can do is concentrate on how I'm going and what I'm doing on a weekly basis.

"I have been up and down a bit over the last couple of years. Sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't. But I've grown up playing with a lot of the lads there, so it's a great surrounding."

He'll never know how close, or far, he may have been to that 23 for the New Zealand game, but just being among those who prepared for it that week engendered enough enthusiasm for him to want to return as quickly as possible.

"Joe would obviously have given pointers to me on what to do to improve as a player," Jones says. "If it doesn't happen for me, that's what it is, but I know I'm doing the best I can.

"I was warned about how much of a stickler he is. He knows all the minute details of play, down to where you should be standing for a penalty, so I was well primed and that is exactly how he was."

Within Munster, he pays tribute to his backs coach Simon Mannix, a man who has not always found favour within the province's hardcore support.

"He's a great guy. It's hard to compare coaches and I don't want to do that in either a positive or negative light, but what Simon has brought is positivity in what we are trying to achieve," he says.

"For example, he is very good at helping us refocus from the Ulster game on to what is likely to be presented to us at the weekend. On any given week he is very good on prepping us on how to prepare."

The drive for places within the province wards off any temptation to become distracted by thoughts of Ireland.

"The competition is massive, so we're all pushing each other and the squad morale is great," he says.

"Guys are helping one another in all areas of the pitch.

"You guys don't get to see it, but if you were to look at, say, JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley, those two guys are incredibly close.

"They're constantly helping one another and it's the same across the pitch in a lot of positions, certainly it's the case in the back three.

"My main concern is how we perform as a unit at the weekend and if I can contribute to that in a positive way, then I'll be happy."

He cannot trick himself to focus on the self; the collective will is sufficient to propel his ambition.

Is this the most competitive Munster squad he has ever seen? "Yeah," he nods, scarcely daring to take a second more to wallow too much.

He knows too well that it can only take a second from riding one wave to being crushed beneath another.

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