Michael Jones is an All Blacks legend, but it is the work he has done since his playing days that he is most proud of.
Jones and his wife, Maliena, have three children – Tiare Maina (20), Niko (18) and Levi (8). They live in Titirangi, where their wide views of Auckland are framed by native bush. When the Listener calls, Michael and Maliena are engaged in light-hearted banter over Jones’ hapless choice of Christmas tree. Having faulted Maliena’s choice the previous year, Michael was charged with doing better this year. Despite pleading it seemed a good buy, “half price!”, Jones laughs and concedes that the artificial tree is “a big fail, it’s too skinny, that’s why it is there without any decorations. It’s going back.”
The hunt for the almost-perfect Christmas tree resumes. Levi, to be fair, isn’t much bothered – he has a friend over to play and when he realises a reporter is in the house, shouts down the hallway that his dad “is famous”. The famous one shakes his head and laughs again, noting he’s not heard that before from his youngest. Until recently, Levi had two foster siblings, as well as brother Niko and sister Tiare, who is a third-year university student. Niko, who has just left high school, is already experiencing some of the fame his father had at the start of his career. He has recently signed with the Auckland team for two years and has a contract with the All Blacks sevens. His All Blacks prospects are a talking point in sports circles. Like his father before him, Niko Jones has had to decide whether to play rugby on Sundays.
Michael Jones missed a lot of games, including some test matches, due to knee injuries, and also to his decision to keep Sundays for the Lord in accordance with his Christian beliefs.
Do you think that you would have come under more pressure to play on Sundays if you had been playing in the professional era?
I think so because, back then, it wasn’t your job. There was a lot more understanding. When you sign a contract, it is black and white and you are, in some ways, signing your life away. There was scope then to allow me to not play on Sundays and still make it work.
Did the coaches make it hard for you in any way?
No. John Hart, as my first coach, got it and he just made it work. He knew what my dream was when I came into the Auckland team – to become an All Black – and at one point he made it clear that “If you do stick to this, it might cost you the dream”, but he never made it a non-negotiable thing like, “You either play on Sunday or you will never be an All Black.” I am very grateful for that.
With Niko on an upwards trajectory, with some predicting a future in the All Blacks, is he having to face this dilemma?
He already is. We have talked about it now that he is 18, and, as it was for me, it is his call. He is going to play on Sundays.
Are you okay with that?
Part of me would love to see him follow in my footsteps, but for his own reasons, because I think there is something very powerful in that as your testimony. But, at the same time, he is unique, and it is his life. As long as he has been living under our roof, he hasn’t played on Sundays and it was a dilemma for him, but we have had to trust him in terms of his own personal faith. He prayed about it and he has peace with it.
You coached Niko and his team at school level until he was about 14, but now he’s moved on. Are you one of those shouty sideline parents?
No, but sometimes, if he is close and I have a feeling he might call the wrong lineout, I will call a lineout move. Most of the time he doesn’t listen, and it works out even better than if he had paid any attention to Dad. I have never wanted to be the one who is reminding him to go out for a run, or do some extra work on this or that, because it is important to me that he has his own drive and motivation. I didn’t have a dad in my face telling me what to do; I had to find it in myself to go out and work hard and go for an extra 40-minute run. I wanted Niko to have that ability to think for himself and have that drive, and he has.
You’ve had some tough times, losing your father, Derek, when you were only four; the terrible knee injury in 1989 that nearly ended your career; the loss of your mother, Maina, in a road accident in Kenya; then your stepfather also dying in a car crash – have any of these events made you question your faith?
My faith has been tested, but I have never questioned it or wondered where God is. My faith is in my DNA and my upbringing. At those moments when it has been tested, my faith has been the thing that carried me through.
Tell me about your church …
Mum actually set up our church 26 years ago with our family as her right-hand men. My brother, Derek, is our senior pastor. It is a non-denominational Christian church called Community Christian Fellowship. It was Mum’s vision – she was a selfless, passionate lady with unconditional love for people. Being a teacher, too, she was big on education, but, ultimately it was about her being Jesus with her sleeves rolled up. Our church is very grass roots and whānau-friendly, built on love and grace. It takes a village to raise a child and I am a product of a village here in West Auckland.
You’ve just farewelled the foster children – what was their story?
It was very sad. The mum was, and is still, in a bad situation. She had nine children and they were her two youngest. They came to us aged eight and 11. When CYFS said they were going to split them up, we said we would take both of them. After three years, out of the blue, an auntie turned up, the father’s sister, and she is a wonderful lady, very stable, with grown-up kids. The plan was always that they would go to whānau, if possible. We will continue to see them, but it will be different here without them.
John Hart called you “almost the perfect rugby player” – what was the “almost” thing about?
Harty’s pursuit of excellence is why we had such successful teams. He always had this kaupapa, or culture, around the constant pursuit of perfection. It is continuous – you can never be perfect, but you are on a journey. His expectation was always that I should be near perfect; that brought out the best in me and it motivated me to push on.
Was he the near-perfect coach?
Yes, near perfect – and he is a good friend.
Who is the perfect or near-perfect All Black?
Richie McCaw stands out. Not just his leadership, which is well known and documented, but also his resilience as a player. To play at such a high level for so long and be at the top of his game and take the openside flanker to another level. I am also a big fan of Kieran Read; he is one of our great captains. No one can ever supersede what Jonah [Lomu] did, as a brand, for rugby. In terms of raw talent and speed, power and dynamic ability to do things out of the stratosphere, Jonah still stands out. Talk to any of the boys, everyone agrees he is almost peerless. We all miss him and Dylan (Mika, a seven-test All Blacks flanker who died in March). The All Blacks club is a special and powerful brotherhood.
What takes up most of your time each day?
I have a full-time job because you have to pay the bills. I am part of the senior team in a shipping company that works in the Pacific. It helps keep me very involved in the Pacific. I did my master’s primarily in Pacific economic development so I am using what I learnt and I have learnt more along the way. My real passion is my voluntary and community work.
Are you having any difficulties now with the charter school you are involved with, with the Government policy against such schools?
We set up the first charter school in Ōtāhuhu, now called a partnership school under the designated special character provision. It’s been going for four years and it is great. Governments come and go. As long as we can bring with us everything we have designed and innovated, which has been working for our kids, they can call us whatever they want. It [the Government] need to get that, and back it, and it has. We don’t want our kids pulled into politics and being pawns.
Another thing in the news lately is the controversy over St Kentigern’s alleged poaching of good rugby players from other schools by luring them with scholarships. In the Iceman biography, you recounted how, as a schoolboy player from Henderson High, St Kent’s had “busloads of kids in fancy garb, and lots of ra-ra stuff on the sidelines”. Does that still hold?
They probably weren’t the force they are now, but they did personify the rich kids from the other side of town. Our little Henderson High School showed that year that money and resources can’t buy some of the key things that bring success, such as pride and passion and brotherhood. I am not saying they don’t have that, but when a smaller school, which doesn’t fit the normal frame of being a force in school rugby, does well, that is good for rugby.
When you were at school, you read about adventurers – what are you reading these days?
I am interested in Māori history, and the stories of their journeys as a people. I read Pacific histories, too, ethnographies and the like. Apart from trying to read the Bible, which is ongoing, these are the things I read in my spare time.
What is your key aspiration for young Māori and Pasifika people, or is it broader than that?
It is indirectly for everyone, because what is good for Māori and Pasifika is good for all New Zealanders. Sadly, we have what is called the “long, brown tail”, which is Māori and Pacific underachievement. We are on the wrong side of the social and health indicators. We don’t like the term “long, brown tail” but it speaks to the sad reality of most of the stats. For community leaders like me, our dream is, in our lifetimes, to see the tail get shorter and ultimately no brown tail. We want to be the head, not the tail.
Iceman by Robin McConnell was published in 1994. You were pretty young to be having a biography written about you. How was that experience?
Dear Robin is a lovely man, a really good writer, but at the time I was, “Robin, I just don’t want to be with you now.” Maliena had just moved back to Samoa – it was killing me sitting with Robin talking about myself when all I could think about was her. You know what it is like when you are madly in love.
What about an updated biography, given all that has happened to you in the past 25 years?
I don’t know if there is a story that justifies another book. Iceman was interesting and timely because, as an amateur, you get one chance to write a book. I was getting married and it helped me put a deposit on a house. It was one way of getting something out of the game. Sales were good, the publishers were happy and it contributed to the house deposit. I cringe a bit, though, because it was my life story and I was 28, barely midway through my playing career.
And so much more has happened since then, hasn’t it?
Yes, more injuries, challenges, and times when you are in the valleys and on the mountaintops – but probably more times in the valleys as a rugby player. As you get older, the injuries catch up with you. But I also lost my mother in that period and that was a huge hit on us. I often say that when I retired in 1999, on reflection, the greatest gift rugby gave me was a platform to be an influencer. My real passion is my voluntary work with the trusts I set up with friends and Maliena, to develop programmes and initiatives that engage young people in education, with sport as a hook. I have always known the power of rugby in our nation. Our vision at New Zealand Rugby [Jones is a board member] is “to inspire and unify” and, when I think of that, it makes my blood pump faster, my heart beat stronger and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I absolutely know it to be true, because I am a product of that.
This is an updated version of an article first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the Listener.