To put it bluntly, Michael Jones has opted out of bigger and better occasions than this. A great All Black in three positions - had the knee problems that tormented him throughout his career not started as early as they did, he would have been a great All Black in four - Jones declared himself unavailable for World Cup semi-finals in both 1987 and 1991 because his commitment to the Congregationalist church ran unfathomably deeper than his commitment to an afternoon's thud and blunder. Especially when the afternoon involved was a Sunday afternoon. Sundays were dedicated to the glory of God, not the glory of a try under the sticks.
So the fact that Jones will not be present in the Samoan dressing-room this weekend as his inexperienced young charges prepare to face England, a meeting between big and small that has more than a touch of the Old Testament about it, cannot be described as one of international sport's more surprising developments.
"I haven't changed. I will take no active part on Sunday," Jones confirmed, the iron resolve of yesteryear still evident in his soft, mellow voice. "But the players know I'll be there for them."
There in spirit, if not in body. Even that much will mean the world to them. Jones has been coaching the islanders for three years now, and it has cost him a packet in lost wages. His proper job, heading up a variety of innovative social-inclusion community projects in the more troubled neighbourhoods of his native south Auckland, gives him considerable satisfaction, but he always yearned to contribute to Samoan rugby, to "give something back". So he negotiated several periods of unpaid leave from his post at the Auckland University of Technology, the last and longest of which enabled him to travel to this tournament. It is his way of repaying a debt of honour.
"I was privileged to play for the All Blacks and I am a proud New Zealander," he said. "But I am also a Samoan who played Test rugby for Samoa before I ever became an All Black, and like the rest of my people, I grew up in Auckland living my Samoanism on a daily basis. I still do. It is possible to be both a New Zealander and a Samoan, you see. There is no conflict, just a strong and very positive link with both countries and cultures.
"My father, who died when I was four, was a New Zealander; my mother, a Samoan. Mine is not an unusual background. So when John Boe [the New Zealander who coaches Samoa on a full-time basis] asked me to help, I was only too happy to get involved."
Jones would have been one of the outstanding centres in world rugby, but for a knee injury that slowed his pace a fraction and persuaded him to try his hand as a loose forward. He played brilliantly at No 8 before breaking into the All Blacks as an open-side flanker of unprecedented attacking potency. By the end of the 1987 World Cup - he scored a try in the final against France and created another for his captain, David Kirk - he was unarguably the hottest player on the international scene. When knee problems kicked in again, this time impacting more seriously on his speed, he reinvented himself as a blind-side specialist and conquered the mountain once more.
Down the years, he has taken enormous joy in Samoa's frequent ascents to the summit: the magnificent performances against Australia and Wales in 1991; the brave assault on South Africa in the 1995 quarter-finals; the second World Cup victory over the Welsh in Cardiff four years ago. But in common with the rest of his kind, he fears for the future of rugby in the Pacific Islands. His presence at this tournament may be driven by a very personal need to serve "the motherland", as he calls it, but it is also an eloquent public statement in support of an impoverished Samoan game increasingly threatened by the ruthless self-interest of the professional unions.
"As a people, it is not our way to make a song and dance about things," he said. "But there has been a lot of rhetoric from the International Rugby Board and the major unions, and no sign of practical solutions to a problem that affects the game worldwide.
"If Samoan rugby in all its uniqueness is allowed to wither, the biggest losers will be everyone. This is not about envy, I assure you. We have a lot of qualities that cannot be found in the bigger, richer teams, and I wouldn't swap those things for however many millions of dollars you care to mention. I do not believe the light will ever be fully extinguished. But unless Samoan rugby is allowed to remain part of the essential fabric of the sport, its spirit will diminish.
"For these reasons, this game against England is of crucial importance. We need to remind the world that we bring something special to rugby. You might even say we are crusading for all the smaller nations who feel isolated from the mainstream of the international game. This is our window of opportunity, our chance to say that we need action instead of nice words. If we can do well here, if we can force people to sit up and take notice of us, maybe our case will be heard."
Lest we forget who is talking here, these are the views of Michael Jones, All Black - a player who bears comparison with Waka Nathan, Kel Tremaine, Ian Kirkpatrick, Graham Mourie and the other titans of New Zealand's back-row heritage; a player who may well have been the finest breakaway forward ever to lace up a pair of boots. And he is speaking both as a Samoan, and as a lover of the game that made him famous.
If the administrators do not listen to a rugby man of his stature, we might as well pack up and go surfing. Say a prayer for them, Michael. They need all the help they can get.Reuse content