Jones the epitome of the island spirit

Former All Black great now cast as the inspiration of his ancestral homeland
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The Independent Online

Not only does the Samoan connection provide New Zea-land with a hard core, but it also exports a huge number of players to the NFL in America. "There is a saying that when Samoa gave up war it took up rugby with a vengeance," Jones said. "We were made to play the game. It suits our natural talent, passion and physicality. It's in the blood."

Jones, who has turned 40, is the coach of Samoa, who today play Scotland at Murrayfield and meet England at Twickenham on Saturday. Like many of Samoan descent, he was born in Auckland and became one of the greatest flankers ever to grace the game. He played 55 Tests for the All Blacks, scoring 13 tries, and it would have been a lot more but for his religious beliefs, which meant he never played on a Sunday. He will be a reluctant observer at today's game.

Despite their handicaps, Samoa, with a largely Protestant population of 160,000, continue to punch above their weight, combining flair with a penchant for big hits. They play with a bible in one hand and an anvil in the other. Their union was formed in 1924 when the Marist Brothers introduced the game to the islands. Their first Test, against Fiji, kicked off at 7am so the players could get to work and the Fijians could catch a boat home. Not much has changed in 80 years. "We're just living off the smell of an oily rag," Jones said after Samoa were beaten 74-7 by Australia in June. Jones's day job is with Auckland University of Technology; the players on this tour - 10 have been recruited from New Zealand, eight from Britain - are on a small weekly allowance. Wherever they travel it is in economy class.

Every four years the World Cup highlights the differences between the haves and the have- nots, but a couple of months ago the International Rugby Board finally reacted, awarding £15m over three years to the second- tier countries. From next year the plan is to stage a six-team competition between the junior All Blacks, Australia A, Samoa, Japan, Fiji and Tonga. "This could be a big building block, and with funding we could establish a high- performance unit," Jones said. "We need all the help we can get."

Last year Jones coached a combined Pacific Islands team in unique matches against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. For a scratch team they did remarkably well, scoring four tries against the All Blacks before losing 41-26 and waging war against the Wallabies, who ended up with four players in hospital. With the Super 12 being expanded to 14 teams, what Samoa, Fiji and Tonga wanted was a place in the sun for a squad from the South Pacific. Instead, the extra places went to Australia and South Africa. "Through a lack of vision a special opportunity has been missed," Jones said. "The islanders were a very potent mix and they would have brought a new dimension, added real flavour. It's a great shame."

You might have thought the All Blacks, who would be a shade of grey without the input of the islands, would move heaven and earth to help their neighbours. Yet neither they, nor Australia, have played a full Test in Apia.

Jones (they call him the Iceman) is cool about the arrangement which sees his top players recruited by New Zealand. He grew up watching Bryan Williams, a Samoan, develop into an outstanding wing for the All Blacks. "My dream was to follow him," Jones said. "It's the way we're brought up. Our parents would encourage us to play for New Zealand. It's a source of pride and a natural progression for every Samoan kid. It's where the money and the careers are.

"If you had a West Indian cricketer born and bred in London, he'd expect to play for England. Many Samoans are born in New Zealand and go through their system. Having said that, I would love to have every Samoan player available, but you can't begrudge young men their dream. We don't have much to offer apart from pride and a strong brotherhood."

Samoa were not invited to the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand in 1987, but four years later they beat Wales and Argentina before losing to Scotland in the quarter-finals. They also reached the quarters in 1995 and the same year played Scotland and England, drawing 15-15 with the Scots and losing 27-9 to England. Samoa led England after 64 minutes in a pool match two years ago before a mightily relieved Red Rose outfit went on to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

"On our day we can compete with anybody," Jones said. "Our aim is to break into the top eight. It's not in the best interest of the game to have such a small number of countries capable of winning World Cups."

He says this tour is a "costly exercise" for Samoa, who do not receive a share of the gate money. "That would have seen us all right for the next five years." What if England were to visit Samoa? "That would be tremendous," Jones said. "We would make more seats."