Jones: The dream debut in first ever RWC match
On the 20 year anniversary of the Rugby World Cup's first ever match, we relive the 1987 tournament through the eyes of some of its leading stars.
The name Michael Niko Jones will forever be synonymous with Rugby World Cup history, the legendary flanker being the first player to score a try in the competition as New Zealand beat Italy 70-6 in the opening game 20 years ago today.
The match at Auckland’s Eden Park also doubled as Jones' All Black Test debut, but you would scarcely have known as he dived over the try line to cap off a move instigated by Buck Shelford, Alan Whetton and Grant Fox.
Technically the first ever Rugby World Cup try was a penalty try, but Jones went on to ink his name indelibly into the history by scoring the first of New Zealand's three tries in the inaugural final – a 29-9 defeat of France – to lift the Webb Ellis Cup they so coveted.
He also played in the second Rugby World Cup in 1991, again scoring a try in the opening match against England, and is now preparing for his first as coach of Samoa, having been John Boe’s assistant four years ago in Australia.
A dream come true
The memories of that first ever Rugby World Cup still burn bright, though, for the charismatic flanker whho came to be known as the 'Iceman' in a career that yielded 13 tries in 55 Tests between May 1987 and August 1998.
“It was just a fantastic season in my life really, in many ways just to be selected for the All Blacks was a dream come true in the first instance and then to be playing in New Zealand, in front of our home crowds and in front of our own people and it was the inaugural World Cup,” Jones told Total Rugby Radio.
“Just all those circumstance lining up, and then to be able to score the first try in that first game, there was a lot of firsts, so just to be part of that, to be playing with all these great players who were at the top of their games at that time, it was definitely a dream come true and it seems quite surreal now looking back.
“But it is something I will always treasure and really look back on with a huge amount of fondness and really cherish that privilege that I had to be part of the first All Black World Cup winning team and it does seem like it was only yesterday, but it is amazing it is a good 20 years on. I’m very, very thankful for being able to part of that whole experience.”
Two decades on from the first triumphant team boasting the likes of John Kirwan, Grant Fox, Buck Shelford, John Gallagher, Joe Stanley and Sean Fitzpatrick, New Zealand are once again favourites to hold aloft the Webb Ellis Cup.
It's a position they know well having been stand-out favourites approaching at least two World Cups since, only to fall short. As a result Jones and his class of '87 have gained something approaching cult status in the country, but he's quietly confident that this time that the burden of expectation will be lifted.
“There are times you get introduced as part of the only All Black World Cup winning team. It is quite hard to believe because we did think we were going to keep on winning after that, but it just wasn’t to be and we have just slipped up every time,” he admitted.
“But I think in terms of what New Zealanders are starting to see take shape, I think there are some really good signs that the All Blacks of 2007 will potentially emulate what happened back 20 years, not just based on form to date, but also looking at the depth, the strength, the leadership and the coaching staff and just the resources that have been thrown into that team. I think they are definitely going in worthy favourites.
A remarkable talent blossoms
“The scary part for every New Zealander, though, is knowing that South Africa, Australia, England, France and maybe even Ireland could sneak up and make every New Zealander wait another four years to maybe see the reality of a World Cup win, but definitely the signs are good so far.”
Only time will tell if Jones’ predictions will come true in France. Either way he remains a true great of Rugby World Cup history, a status summarised perfectly by New Zealand Herald writer Chris Rattue.
“Legends don’t come any greater than this,” wrote Rattue in his catch up with the heroes of 1987 over the weekend. “The finest of rugby athletes and still revered as among the handful of best ever to play the game.
“The 1987 tournament was his time, the brilliant and instant flowering of a remarkable talent. Grace, balance, courage, strength, speed, ball skills … you name it, and Jones had it.”
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