The warrior king of rugby

England's troubles mount as one of the greatest of the great is reunited with his beloved All Blacks; Chris Hewett in Hamilton celebrates the return of Michael Jones, a once- in-a-lifetime talent
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The Independent Online
Two total knee reconstructions, one remodelling of a shattered jaw, umpteen sessions of minor surgery and rehabilitative physiotherapy and enough running repairs to keep a Formula One team busy for an entire grand prix season. Michael Jones fully justifies his reputation as the Six Million Dollar Man of rugby but then, the softly spoken Aucklander might just as easily have earned that nickname had his career been injury free. Even the most hyper-critical former All Blacks concede that at 33, he is still worth six million bucks of anyone's money.

We are talking about a once-in-a-lifetime player, a loose forward who redefined the open-side position with his displays in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 before proceeding to reinvent the blind-side position on New Zealand's epoch- forming, watershed tour of South Africa two years ago. You want more? Well hear this. There are many in both the North and South Islands who believe his best position might have been centre, where he spent his time before his first serious injury, or at No 8, in which role he first visited Britain in 1986. In short, he stands alongside Danie Craven, Gareth Edwards, Colin Meads and a tiny handful of others as one of the greatest of the greats.

And now he is back; lean, fit and hungry for the fray, he will be pawing the turf in Dunedin on Saturday as England attempt to send the rugby formbook spinning apex over base by winning a Test in New Zealand for the first time in 25 years. It is enough to make the red rose wilt with fear and apprehension; England have quite enough problems, thank you very much, without Jones resurrecting himself from the sporting mortuary.

When the maestro smashed his left knee to smithereens during his country's Test with Fiji last summer, a definitive line appeared to have been drawn under his 51-cap international career. His body had already been forced to bear more than he had a right to ask of it and while he insists now that his faith, a profound and deep-rooted Christian belief that prevents him playing on Sundays, remained strong throughout his recuperation, few of his countrymen expected either his or their own prayers to be answered in the affirmative. "There's only so much God can do for a man," said one New Zealand pundit during last year's Jones-less British tour.

What did he know? Jones was back in Super 12 shape for this summer's competition - indeed, he captained the Auckland Blues to their third successive final - and while lesser injuries of the niggling variety interrupted his provincial season, there was never much doubt that John Hart, the All Black coach, would give his most precious asset all the time he needed to work his way back to peak fitness.

"The guy amazes me, simple as that," Hart said in Auckland last week. "People say, `Come on John, Michael must be over the mountain top by now. Why don't you let him go?' But if Michael wants it at Test level, I want him at Test level. Why? Because he continues to prove himself the best blind-side flanker we have available to us. I'm not doing him a favour here, I need him because he is a huge defensive player, a tremendous organiser, a man who brings a special passion to the All Black jersey. I know for a fact that while Michael is in the team, I have a person who will never fail the Silver Fern."

Rather like his coach, Jones does not talk for long without recourse to the word "passion". "Respect", "honour" and "satisfaction" are also central to his rugby vocabulary, but it is the passion that drives him on, through pain-barrier after pain- barrier, through desperate days and nights of self-questioning, through the long, unforgiving recovery programmes in this gym or on that running track.

"This last knee injury left me facing a big physical challenge; in fact, it was quite a setback," he said with his customary degree of whispered understatement. "I knew the scale of the problem as I was being stretchered off, largely because I'd been there before. The patella tendon was ripped clear of the rest of the knee and the surgeon had to piece back together all the important internal structures, which was obviously quite an undertaking.

"But hey, this is the game I love. I knew while I was lying there after the surgery that I wanted to play rugby again and play it at the highest possible level. The thirst doesn't die in you just because you're laid up for a while; being an All Black means so much to those fortunate and honoured enough to be selected that you never want to give it away. Sure, you entertain the odd thought that you might never get back; that's only human, after all. But it soon goes from your mind once you start the target-setting process.

"I love the jersey, even though the attainment of it impinges increasingly on my private life, which is very, very important to me. The buzz I get now is from sitting in the dressing-room with the new All Blacks, the inexperienced guys just embarking on their Test careers. Their enthusiasm rubs off on old-stagers like myself almost to the extent that I feel it's all happening again, that I'm experiencing everything for the first time."

It is 12 years since Jones first registered an impact on rugby's version of the Richter Scale and while his performances for the New Zealand Barbarians in Britain did not quite set tower blocks quaking at their foundations, those with eyes to see observed something special in the gestation. Jones played No 8 on that first visit to Britain - his back-row partners were Alan Whetton and Mike Brewer, both of whom inhabited a different planet to anyone plying his trade in the Five Nations at that time - and the brilliance of his attacking from the rear of the scrum allowed the tourists to play some of the most imaginative rugby ever seen.

Within a year, Jones was celebrating the start of the first World Cup with a debut try against Italy and he would go on to score in the final, too. But the Barbarian experience remains one of his most treasured memories. "I think that side operated in a different dimension to most of what had gone before and to my way of thinking, the feeling that it was ahead of its time has been confirmed by many of the developments we've seen at Test level over the last couple of years.

"The game seems to have come full circle and that pleases me, because I always wanted to play rugby with the ball in the hand, an expansive game full of running and close support and genuine dynamism. It's certainly keeping me stimulated and hungry for more. I've derived enormous enjoyment from Super 12, which is my kind of game, and to have made the All Black side once more is the ultimate bonus. It won't last for ever, I know. But I'll enjoy it while I have the chance."

Whether England enjoy Jones is quite another matter, of course; the last time he faced them at Test level was in the opening game of the 1991 World Cup at Twickenham and true to form, he scored the only try of the encounter. But it is not every day that a band of rookie internationals get to face the richest rugby talent in a generation.

As an open-side, he stands alongside Bill Clark, Waka Nathan and Graham Mourie in the All Black pantheon; as a blind-side, he is up there with Peter Jones, Kel Tremain and Ian Kirkpatrick. Respect for the ghosts of All Blacks past is an important element in the Jones make-up and it would be good to know that win or lose, his English opponents show just a little respect in Dunedin. If they don't, he will probably make them pay through their teeth.