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How former Welsh prop turned stand up comedian ensured Jonah Lomu became world superstar

How the late Phil Kingsley Jones prevented All Blacks hero from abandoning rugby altogether

As a former prop from the Welsh valleys turned stand-up comedian, Phil Kingsley Jones seemed an unlikely candidate to have changed the course of rugby history. However, were it not for Jones, who passed away this week aged 72, then Jonah Lomu would not have become rugby’s biggest global superstar. It was Lomu’s presence at the 1995 World Cup that provided the rocket fuel for professionalism to take off. Every one of today’s professional players owes Lomu, and indirectly Jones, a huge debt of gratitude. 

Having emigrated from Wales to New Zealand in 1983, Jones took a position at Counties-Manukau rugby club when he first laid eyes on Lomu, then a teenager playing for Wesley College. Jones always disputed the notion that he “discovered” Lomu. “I wish I could bask in that but who could fail to pick out Red Rum in a field full of pit ponies?” he once wrote.

Nevertheless, the pair formed an unlikely bond: Jones, the gregarious raconteur who once appeared on the ITV talent show New Faces and Lomu, the man mountain who was painfully shy in public. With his physical gifts, Lomu’s superstardom may have seemed inevitable, but it certainly was not the case that his ascent should have taken place in rugby union. 

In fact, his first appearances for the All Blacks in 1994 in a series defeat against France were distinctly underwhelming. Freshly converted from a No 8 to a wing, Lomu was the All Blacks youngest ever debutant but quickly fell out of favour with New Zealand coach Laurie Mains and was dropped.

It was at this point that Lomu was nearly lost to union. He had no shortage of suitors from the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL to Leeds who were offering him £500,000 a year to play as a dual-code star. 

Perhaps the most intriguing offer came from the Dallas Cowboys who even flew legendary running back Emmitt Smith in a story relayed by Jones to the Rugby Paper’s Peter Jackson. “Emmitt gave him a crash course in the basics of American football,” Jones told Jackson. “Then they asked Jonah to have a go and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. As one of them said: ‘Oh, my gawd, this guy doesn’t jump, he flies. Where did you get him because we ain’t seen anyone like this. Man, he’s going to be a superstar’.”

Disillusioned with union, Lomu was more than happy to cash any one of those cheques, but wanted Jones to become his full time manager. Jones agreed, but on the condition that he got to keep the next All Blacks shirt that Lomu wore, effectively tying him to union. 

Lomu stayed put, trampled over Mike Catt and became rugby’s single biggest icon. Unfortunately Lomu would never again ascend to that peak as the ravages of the kidney disease, which would ultimately claim his life in 2015, took their toll. Jones stayed by Lomu’s side from launching an eponymous computer game, that like himself has yet to be bettered, to his various sojourns into European rugby. 

Jones’ impact was not just limited to Lomu. He coached the Tongan national team at the 1999 World Cup and may have been indirectly responsible for the establishment of a thriving Tongan community in Wales when they toured there in 1997. 

He was also an institution at Counties Manukau and by all accounts was still helping out there even when he fell seriously ill after a recent fall. His rugby legacy will live on through his son, Kingsley who is the coach of the Canadian national team. He is also survived by his wife Verina, two daughters, Rhianon and Vikki, and stepson James. “Dad died peacefully in his sleep with his wife, Verina, and daughters Vikki and Rhianon at his bedside,” Jones, junior, said. “He had been in declining health since falling at home a few months ago.

“We shall forever remember him as a man who lived life to the full and for all those lucky enough to have known him, he made the world a better place.

“A comedian, coach and mentor to one of the greatest rugby players the world has ever seen, dad was first and foremost a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and brother. We are all so very proud of his achievements, not least his massive influence on Counties Manukua rugby over a period of more than 30 years. He will be sorely missed by his family and countless friends.’’