New club, new country, new child, new lease of life, and to top it off - a gong.

It's been quite a year for Stacey Jones, New Zealand's most accomplished and most popular rugby league player.

Yesterday, at the family bach at Tokerau Beach in the Far North, Jones was shyly proud of his New Year honour and quick to claim it was an award for his sport as much as himself.

Being made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby league makes a perfect going-away present for Jones, who is off to play league for a French club.

He joins a list of notable New Zealanders to be honoured, headed by one of New Zealand's most renowned scientists, Professor Paul Callaghan of Victoria University.

Professor Callaghan is made a principal companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the first PCNZM appointment since the 2002 Queen's Birthday honours.

Four people were appointed distinguished companions of the order (DCNZM) - David Gascoigne, for services to arts and business; Emeritus Professor Judith Binney, for services to historical research; former ASB Bank and Air NZ chief executive Ralph Norris, for services to business; and Supreme Court judge Andrew Tipping, for services to the judiciary.

Other big names honoured include golfer Michael Campbell, retired police commissioner Rob Robinson, Film Commission chief executive Ruth Harley, retiring Ombudsman Mel Smith and former Employment Court chief judge Tom Goddard.

Jones is chuffed his ONZM gives him bragging rights with league ambassador the Mad Butcher, Peter Leitch, who previously received a royal honour.

Jones played a starring role in the Kiwis' historic Tri-Nations victory, flying from France to Auckland for the birth of his third child, William, then four hours later boarding a flight to London to take part in the record-breaking 24-0 final win over Australia.

But that had no bearing on his award. He had earlier received the standard call from Wellington saying he had been nominated for an honour and asking whether he would accept.

Just before Christmas the official confirmation from Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright arrived, followed by a congratulatory letter from Prime Minister Helen Clark.

"Anything like this is a surprise," Jones said. "We are going away for a couple of years and to get this, it's just a buzz. It's great for league to be given some recognition."

Jones, regarded as one of the great players to represent New Zealand, has achieved most things in the game.

He played the first of 34 tests aged 19 and captained the Kiwis; he led the Warriors to a grand final in the NRL in which he scored a brilliant solo try; he holds the club records for most games, tries and points and in 2002 became the first New Zealander to win the Golden Boot award for World Player of the Year.

Jones says that what elevates this award is that it is from his country rather than his sport. "That makes it more of an honour for me."

And the timing couldn't be better. He, wife Rachelle, and children Chellcey, 7, Waiana, 5, and baby William fly to France in a week so he can begin a two-year contract with Super League club Les Catalan Dragons.

"The house is packed. We are down to one suitcase each and it's off. It's quite [strange] that this is it for two years."

Jones is enjoying his last Kiwi beach holiday for a while, surrounded by parents Rana and Bill and extended family in a part of the Far North that is a home away from home. "This is not a farewell, this is where we come from. Dad's from up here, my grandparents farm at Awanui.

"We come up here to get away, try to catch some fish but we don't seem to be getting any."

If Jones has a regret from a year which has brought so much, it's that the Warriors didn't make the play-offs in what was his 11th season with them.

"But to finish off with the Kiwis like that, and to have a wee baby and now this - it's a pretty special year."

- additional reporting by NZPA