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Stacey's 'the epitome of a New Zealand champion'

By Peter Jessup

Helen Clark began giving prizes to Stacey Jones when he was a boy. Even then Jones was a league star in the making.

The Prime Minister, patron of the Mt Albert Rugby League club, had long handed out prizes in the district. "Does any other kid win a cup around here?" she had wondered to herself.

Yesterday she again sang Jones' praises at a tribute lunch to the nuggety 29-year-old who is packing his bags to play out his career in France.

"We prefer our champions to be humble and modest," Helen Clark said, mentioning Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Peter Blake, Peter Snell and Sir Murray Halberg. "He's the epitome of a New Zealand champion," she said of Jones.

Warriors CEO Mick Watson told the audience of teammates and coaches, former players and Kiwi league team managers packed audience into the Ellerslie Racecourse convention centre that Jones was "competitive beyond belief".

He would be remembered as a legend of New Zealand league regardless of what he achieved after his move to the new French Super League club UTC Perpignan.

National Rugby League chief executive David Gallop talked about Jones' importance to the Warriors in their formative years.

In statistics, it was 644 points, 74 tries. But there was much more in terms of leadership, example, and execution at critical times.

New Zealand Rugby League president Selwyn Pearson said: "Ask him what he'd achieved and he'd answer 'I'm just being me'.

"But everyone who saw him knew they were watching a special rugby league player. Thanks for everything you've done for rugby league and for being the person you are."

A procession of players including first captain Dean Bell, Greg Alexander (whom Jones replaced as halfback at the Warriors), former Warriors and Kiwis teammate Stephen Kearney to Newcastle's Andrew Johns featured via video with messages.

Coach Tony Kemp said Jones was similar to Jonah Lomu and racehorse Sunline in being head and shoulders above the competition: "As far as I'm concerned Stacey Jones is the best rugby league player ever to come out of New Zealand."

His captain Steve Price said he'd spent 10 years chasing Jones and decided to join him instead. "And now he's leaving."

Jones' dad Billy said: "Every time he's pulled on the Warriors or Kiwi jersey he's made us feel proud - that's our memory."

Jones was, as usual, nervous, humble and modest. "I know a lot of kids look up to me and I guess, being a little bloke, they don't have to look up so high," he said.

After deciding to leave the club last year, Watson and Kemp had asked him to stay on and he was glad he had, because it was not a happy environment in 2004 and that was not how he wanted to leave.

This year, despite their low place on the table, he'd enjoyed trainings and games.

He has two games to go, numbers 237 and 238.

"We're not far off," he said.

The team needed to learn from the several close losses they had suffered.

"It's time for me to move on and I'm looking forward to it," he said. His teammates and others, including former Kiwi captain Ritchie Barnett, responded with a haka.

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