But if he is the first, then there are few more deserving of that honour than Sir Michael Niko Jones, who was knighted in this week’s honours list.
He introduced himself to the world through his astounding exploits for the All Blacks in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Jones had the leap of a lock, the speed of a back and the anticipation of ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky.
Apparently, for those whose memories go that far back nothing as extraordinary as Jones had been seen since the legendary Waka Nathan whose “elegant and athletic style” in the All Blacks’ golden era of the 1960s, redefined the very position of open-side flanker.
Unfortunately I wasn’t born then, so I never got to see the man dubbed “The Black Panther” in action. But I was at high school when Jones became a star and gained his nickname of “The Ice Man”. There’s something about that formative age that gives added weight and importance to your heroes.
With Jones, it wasn’t just that he was “the man” for the All Blacks, he was also only few years older and a fellow Westie. All Blacks tend to come from the big boys’ schools with the best first XVs, but Jones went to Henderson High School.
He was also the first Samoan star in New Zealand’s beloved national rugby team since the great Bryan Williams had been such a trailblazer for his community during the 1970s. Jones actually made his international rugby debut for Samoa against Wales in Apia in 1986.
To my impressionable young mind, Jones made a huge impression. He was a bright and shining sign of a Pacific Islander, who broke through the glass ceiling to prove you could achieve whatever you wanted with hard work and perseverance.
Consequently, I was a nervous wreck when, as a baby reporter for the Auckland Star, I staked out a club rugby game so I could interview him in 1990.
Jones was due to play his first game back since a serious knee injury in 1989. It had been Jones’ extraordinary speed that got him injured in the first place after his knee was wrenched by the weight of an opposition tackler when he got his boot to a ball no-one else could probably have reached.
His comeback game from a long injury lay-off was for his beloved Waitemata club and I’d hassled my chief reporter that this was newsworthy. Thankfully, he agreed and even sent a photographer with me.
It was a cold and rainy day and the field was muddy. I barely took in the game because I was too busy fretting and hoping like heck that Jones wouldn’t mind being pestered.
He came through the game with his knee intact and, as he walked off, I ran up to him, introduced myself and asked if he would mind giving me a few words about his comeback.
I thought that, being the great man he is, he would ignore me. But he stopped, took me seriously, didn’t look at me like I was annoying and answered all my questions politely.
That my hero was so accommodating when he’d just finished a hard game gave me another lesson in how you should treat people.
But for all his rugby skills, it was Jones’ economic and social development work with disadvantaged youth and Pacific people that won him this latest honour.
Jones is one of those players whose life didn’t peak with the All Blacks. It was his stepping stone to do what’s really important to him. As he said this week: “It’s what I’ve been most called to do.”
These gongs are often handed out to business leaders as an extra reward for pretty much just doing their job. But, occasionally, they go to someone who really encapsulates the selfless values that you associate with such a distinguished honour.
Arise, Sir Michael Jones. You’ve always been the man.
-Sunday Star Times/Oscar Kightley