Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global

FEATURE Why defensive aggressor Felix Jones will drive new-look England

Why defensive aggressor Felix Jones will drive new-look England
4 months ago

Who will end up running the England rugby team in 2024? If the answer lies with intensity of personality, it will probably be Steve Borthwick’s new defensive co-ordinator Felix Jones.

The head coach had already enjoyed a taste of what to expect from Munsterman Jones during an exploratory phone call about the job.

“Meeting with him, being on the phone with him, having a conversation with him for an hour, and not getting a word in because he has so much rugby knowledge, it is unreal,” Borthwick said.

“And [there is] a work ethic that is astounding. And I have seen people who have worked very hard. This guy, I don’t know whether he sleeps – because the amount of material he works through, the amount he sends me, what he talks about. He has the work ethic.”

Felix Jones was a key member of the South Africa coaching staff which steered the Springboks to World Cup glory (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

During Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Italy, the camera panned across to the England coaching box intermittently. Borthwick looked impassive, but the visage of Jones was darkly forbidding, especially in a first half when his charges conceded two tries. There were nervous, impatient jerks on the water bottle. A restless discontent seemed to roll up and down his tall, lean frame. By the end, the camera looked nervous to dwell for too long on Jones, it eased away while the going was still good.

Borthwick again: “When he presented to the players last week, the room had that deathly silence. When a coach is presenting up front, I usually come down the sides just to be able to scan across the players. Hardly blinking, and transfixed by what he is saying. The ability to do that is superb. So, work ethic, incredible knowledge, and grasp of concepts – and he has the players’ attention.”

The England head coach has a very ambitious project afoot. He wants to improve his team on both sides of the ball simultaneously. Both he and Richard Wigglesworth have visited Paris in recent weeks to pass the peace pipe with Racing 92’s Stuart Lancaster, the principal architect of the most successful attack in the world, run by both Leinster and Ireland.

At the same time, Borthwick has recruited the man who coached the Springboks’ rabidly aggressive form of defence at the last World Cup. England are reaching for the best of both worlds under the ex-Bath and Saracens man. They are looking to bestride the rugby ocean to the north and south, ‘realms and islands as plates dropping from [their] pockets’.

England Italy
Alex Mitchell’s try helped England come from behind to beat Italy 27-24 in Rome on Saturday (Photo by PA)

It is a herculean labour to perfect formations and learn new shapes, and more importantly deepen the understanding which underpins them, in both attack and defence in the same phase of development, but that is the task Borthwick’s England has undertaken. If it becomes a theoretical overload for the players, the chances are it is the offence which will lose traction first.

Jones himself has hinted at the priority of learning defence in the new-model England. If push comes to shove further into the Six Nations, the entertainment factor at Twickenham will probably come a distant second as the intensity of Jones’ technical demands and personality take over.

“The perception we [South Africa] had was that the English side were an incredibly effective and difficult team to beat,” Jones said.

“I thought it was an incredible [World Cup semi-final]. I know the rain was lashing down. But in terms of an arm wrestle and the tightness of the game, I thought it was hugely exciting.

“There is the side of winning Test matches, and not blinding yourself to what is effective. You have got to find the marriage and it is challenging.”

In the course of events at the Stadio Olimpico, it was England’s defence which showed the steeper curve of improvement after some distinctly dodgy beginnings.

Jones’ defence are going to compress the line and attack the space ahead of them from out to in, they will most emphatically not be numbering up on the outside attackers. They will make mistakes as they try to get an early jump on the ball.


They want to have their cake and eat it, and Maro Itoje is already a couple of steps ahead of the offside line on a back-side blitz when the Azzurri attack bends back to the original site of the lineout. That was a penalty to Italy and it illustrated some of the problems England would experience later in the half.

It looks as though the one back on the short side [number nine Alex Mitchell] wants to drop into backfield defence, but the forwards [Itoje, number three Will Stuart and number six Ethan Roots] are all facing in the opposite direction and preparing to rush the pass.

That lack of co-ordination cost the men in white a try only seven minutes later.


The man entrusted to set England’s line- speed opposite first receiver was Leicester forward Olly Chessum, but the moment he dives in on Azzurri 10 Paolo Garbisi, the first two backs alongside him [12 Fraser Dingwall and 13 Henry Slade] are not quite on the same page, and a big disconnect develops right down the middle of the field.


Jones’ defence is roughly divided between ‘hitters’ and ‘folders’. There are those are designated to rush and apply pressure – here Chessum, Slade and 11 Elliot Daly in the red squares. Then those required to fold in behind them and cover the corners of the field – in this instance number one Joe Marler and six Roots [red arrows] – if the ball is successfully transferred out wide.

In this sequence, the hitters never look like shutting down the play, and Daly, who should be a hitter, ends up folding – turning a 360 degree circle as the last man in the line. Furthermore, the folders never look like reaching the ball in cover and neutralising the attack further downfield. Everyone is at least a couple of steps too slow to make the defensive pattern work.

If the first period was a relative failure, the second half was a success. Jones’ charges came out with a renewed sense of purpose and turned over all the first four Italian attacking possessions.



In this seminal sequence from a scrum, Slade and Daly are defending with a far more unified sense of purpose on first phase, then England twice take man-and-ball at first receiver on the two plays following. On third phase, the pressure is entirely too much for Italian ball skills and the fumble duly results in an England scrum.

All of a sudden, England were no longer a step short of meeting their targets.


Slade just flows all the way through the line on to the back-door option in the second phase of play, towing the wing [14 Tommy Freeman] along with him for the ride. Suddenly the edge defenders were just where they should be in a Jones-inspired ‘Springbok’ pattern – ahead of everyone else in the line.

When the hitters are as far upfield as Freeman in that second snapshot – fully 20m ahead of the previous ruck – it makes the job of the folders far easier. They now find themselves on a beeline to the ball, because any breach will be occurring so much further downfield. That is a picture of winning defence, Springbok-style.

Borthwick’s staff have indeed cast the net worldwide in their quest for excellence. For English fans, it will be instructive to gauge whose voice is the strongest when England come to play their three crunch games in the final three rounds – versus Scotland in Edinburgh, at home to tournament favourites Ireland, and against France in the tournament climax in Lyon.

The signposts all lead to Rome, they all point the way of Jones. Just like South Africa at the World Cup, England will claw and scrap for every last inch of ground when it really matters, and they will rely on Jones’ defence rather Wigglesworth’s attack.

Whether the Twickenham faithful will agree with the relationship the Munsterman envisages between ‘incredibly effective’ and ‘hugely exciting’ is another matter entirely. With Marcus Smith injured, it may be a bridge too far to expect England to win evenly-balanced matches through the quality of their attack, just ‘past the size of dreaming’ at the old cabbage patch.


Derek Murray 126 days ago

It’s remarkable how different England were, one half to the next, in Rome. If we follow that logic, it makes for difficult reading for Italy who won’t get the space they were allowed in H1 again.

Bob Marler 126 days ago

England will no doubt kick more and be more conservative on attack against the stronger teams. I think Italy was partly a forced situation given that England were behind on tries.

I think they’ll continue building around (and focusing) on the rush defence system they’re adopting. You can’t do it half arsed and it needs serious concentration and commitment from the players to get right. Teams like France and Ireland can tear it apart if it goes wrong.

carlos 126 days ago

Italy, 3 tries. England, 2.

john 127 days ago

Wasn’t the last England defensive coach super intensive too ?

Putting too much pressure on the players to be similarly intensive can be counter productive.

They become scared to fail.

Personally I think this is the problem Schmidt will have with the Wallabies. They won’t enjoy his acerbic intensity.

Rugby 127 days ago

No comment

Shaylen 127 days ago

Felix jones was great for South Africa and in combination with the workaholic that is Nienaber they really did mastermind a fantastic defensive pattern for the Springboks. When Nienaber entered as the defence coach for the Boks they had an awful defence that shipped more than 50 on 2 separate occasions in the 2 years prior. Just think back to 2018 for a moment though and look at the scores for the Boks in that year. Nienaber tried to turn the ship around with a new pattern but still plenty of teams racked up substantial points against the Boks. They were solid one week and a disaster the next but in 2019 they turned it around big time. Jones will have a big impact with England but expect a roller coaster until England adapt to this new defensive pattern. England will have to adapt and their fans will have to be patient.

Francisco 128 days ago

Hi Nick, excellent approach to the defense problem…! In truth, matches are won by scoring more points than your opponent and preventing him from doing the same. We saw an England team putting a lot of defensive pressure on the field, contesting 68% of the rucks constructed by Italy and contact finally prevailing. However, with the ball England showed less aggressiveness than Italy, despite having possession. Clearly, the risk was assumed by Italy, even in the poor administration of discipline: England converted 45% or more of the penalties conceded by the Italians into points. I would love to see a more aggressive English team, capable of building possession across the width up and down the field and with great finishing power at 22 M. I think the narrative on which the English game is awakening is in full development, and that's stimulating.

Mzilikazi 128 days ago

An interesting article, Nick. I wonder on two fronts. First with so much change being pressed on the English, players, will they get anywhere near to where they need to be this season to really challenge teams like France and Ireland. It may be they only really gel over the next two seasons.

And second, does England currently have the quality of player they need, to play the type of game Bothwick and his coaches are working on. Ofc, a big factor will also be selecting well from their talent pool. And will they look across the channel to France, where currently at least two very good players won’t be part of the England campaign in this current 6N.

Felix Jones is a fascinating piece in this puzzle. I watch with great interest.

A piece of trivia. I see Jones was educated at St Andrew’s College in Dublin. Same as Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour. And way back before them, St Andrew’s produced the legendary Jammie Clinch, who played for Ireland and the Lions between 1921 - 1933. Lore has it that England’s winger, crossing into the in goal to score it seemed, was seized by Clinch and thrown into the crowd.

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free