He played 55 internationals for the All Blacks. Now Michael Jones is stepping up to lead West Auckland's Pacific community and agonising over going into politics.

About 120 athletic young Pacific men and women sit at the back of a big marquee at the New Lynn cricket club, resplendent in shiny new black uniforms.

Proud parents, aunts, uncles and community leaders stream in for the Village Sports Academy launch.

Waipareira kaumatua Dennis Hansen greets everyone in Maori. Pastor Derek Jones of the Community Christian Fellowship welcomes them quietly, in the name of God.

Then the pastor's brother steps forward. Michael Jones, last seen as a brilliant but painfully shy All Black a decade ago, speaks first in Maori, then in Samoan, and finally in passionate and eloquent English.

Jones promises the young recruits they will have "a whole community wrapped around you".

"I'm a product of the village," he says. "My own father passed away when I was 4. I had a wonderful mother, but if it wasn't for the village around me - the community in West Auckland, the man up the road who picked me up because he felt sorry for me because my uncles were working and I couldn't get to training - I would never have made it."

He speaks of our "long brown tail" of under-achievement. Half the Maori and Pacific males in West Auckland are leaving school with no qualifications.

He speaks from his own experience of the power of sport, combined with education, to "take people ahead".

Jones is taking youngsters ahead through the Village Trust, which he chairs.

Last year it gained funding for a pilot intake of 45 sports trainees. Forty-three graduated with a level two certificate at the end of the 18-week course.

"Two pulled out because their parents lost their jobs and they had to go to work," Jones says.

Thirty of last year's graduates are back to studying towards a level four qualification, along with 85 new trainees.

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Jones' work has admirers at the highest level. Listening to him speak at last week were Prime Minister John Key, ministers Paula Bennett, Tariana Turia and Georgina Te Heu Heu and National's sole Pasifika MP, Sam Lotu-Iiga. Key spoke later, in a similar inspirational vein. But it was Jones who spoke from the heart.

Key's high-powered retinue made it clear he was redoubling the effort he made before the last election to get Jones to stand for Parliament on the National ticket.

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey, who has watched Jones for 20 years, says he "could go very far" in politics if he chooses to.

He compares the great flanker to former Prime Minister Norman Kirk. "I have always felt their voice is similar, their phraseology, their quiet and forceful delivery," he says.

"I think he's an extraordinary New Zealander. I think he's got another life. I think that life is saving New Zealand and I would just love to see him run."

Jones is taking Key's overtures seriously and is consciously stepping up to leadership.

"Although I am still that shy and reserved kid from West Auckland, I've had to really overcome my shyness and reservedness because I'd be undermining the leadership potential that I know that I've been given," he says.

But he also has a new factor to weigh up. Nine years after the couple's second child was born, Maliena Jones, 38, the Village Trust's operations manager, is expecting a surprise baby in June.

"All of a sudden, when your wife is pregnant, you start thinking, 'maybe not'," Jones says. "Maybe you just keep on doing what you're doing."

What he is doing is running hard already, on three or four tracks at once.

Even in his All Black days - he played 55 tests and was called the Iceman or Ice because of his coolness under pressure and the icepacks used to nurse his injuries - he squeezed in three degrees.

When he retired from rugby in October 1999, his work track started. At the same time he found room for community work, which started as a family affair.

Jones' late mother Maina, a schoolteacher, instilled an ethic of service in her four children that sprang from her strong Christian faith.

Older brother Derek Jones says the family started "a small fellowship" in 1992 after a visiting evangelist converted many West Auckland Pacific people who were "not really settling" in the established churches.

"We felt it would be good to just gather them in a little fellowship on Sunday evenings," he says.

In 1994 this became the Community Christian Fellowship (CCF). Four of the five original trustees were Derek, Michael and their two sisters' husbands, Lachlan MacKay and Garry Collins. MacKay, an Anglican minister, was the first pastor.

The fellowship now has more than 250 members plus children and worships at Kelston Boys High School. Michael Jones remains one of its leaders and recently negotiated with New Lynn's New World supermarket to start a foodbank for the area.

In 2002 Jones teamed up with another CCF member, basketballer Glenn Compain, who had been appointed police Pacific liaison officer with a brief to keep Pacific youth out of gangs. Waitakere City Council let them use the New Lynn community centre for a Friday night youth drop-in.

"He brought his rugby ball and I brought my basketball and we pretty much had a game with each other," says Compain. "We had some music and we opened the doors, and the first night we had a trickle of young people coming in. The next week we had about 150. The street has a language - all the young people started talking and the word got around."

Soon the youngsters started sharing their secrets.

"The kids were saying, 'I'm not actually going to school,' 'I don't have a father,' 'My mother's a prostitute', all this sort of stuff," says Compain.

He and Jones and another CCF member, IT consultant Willie Hulme, formed the Village Trust in 2003 and went to see the Ministry of Social Development's Fiji-born Auckland Regional Commissioner, Isabel Evans.

She gave them seed funding to start what they called the Streetlevel Learning Academy for 15- to 18-year-olds who had dropped out of school. Compain took leave from the police to run it and had to tell his wife and children that his pay had been halved.

The trio soon realised they needed to reach further back into young people's lives, and came up with a mentoring scheme for Pacific high school students.

Meanwhile the Friday night drop-in moved to the Kelston Boys' High gym, still with volunteers from CCF and elsewhere.

The latest initiative, the Village Sports Academy, is a joint venture with Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and grew out of a conversation between Jones and wananga head Bentham Ohia at Key's job summit last year. Jones feels all these projects are part of a race against gangs for the next generation. "Our people are very much village thinkers. They need to belong. If they are alienated from their family, they will find the next village or whanau or tribe to pin their colours to," he says. "The Headhunters and King Cobras work together to control 'P'. If we don't do the same, who is going to control the hearts and minds of the young people coming out of Kelston Boys, for example?"

He sees families that have split or where both parents work long hours on low pay, leaving children alone. That's when the rest of the "village" need to step up.

He is enthusiastic about joint ventures some Maori tribes have launched in forestry and geothermal development, and sees similar "public-private partnerships" as useful on a national scale.

Jones' Christian moral values have always placed him on the right politically. He opposed Labour's civil unions law and Sue Bradford's anti-smacking law, and fronted advertisements for Christian Heritage in 2002.

But he also grew up with Maori families in Te Atatu, learnt te reo Maori at university and spoke out against former National leader Don Brash's attack on "race-based funding" in 2004. He warmed to National when Key took over and asked him to stand in 2008.

"I got to know John Key in that period and I liked what I saw, not only in terms of his leadership style. "I really sensed that his aspiration was to bring all New Zealanders forward, including Pacific people," he says.

And Jones has become more tolerant since 1994, when he refused to take part in an inter-faith service with Muslim Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan. He says his mother made the decision while he was out of the country.

"I have actually come a long way," he says. "Whilst never watering down my Christian faith, I have been that much more inclusive of different religions and views and lifestyles."

He has always recognised that rugby has given him "a platform and an influence" that he feels a responsibility to use for the good.

"There will always be a part of me that will want to be that young kid sitting at the back of the class," he says.

"But I realise that there is a right season for you to use what you have been given, but also to do what is expected of you.

Some time, that sense of duty may lead him into politics. But he has to weigh that up against the most important track in his life, his family.

"My priority is Maliena and the kids," he says. "It would be quite ironic to think you can save the world but you can't do the best for your own family."

He is blessed with a politically astute wife who shares his faith and even completes his sentences, as he completes hers. Her great-grandfather founded the Mau Mau movement, her grandfather was Samoa's Minister of Finance and her uncle is its current Head of State.

She knows the "hefty price" that politics takes from a politician's family and doesn't want to share her husband with "everyone". But she nods when he says: "I also know that if I felt strongly that was what I needed to do, Maliena would support me and we'd find a way to make it work."

WORKING LIFE

After rugby, Michael Jones worked for meat company Pacific Choice, which he helped set up to counter concerns about the health risks of home-killed pigs in the Pacific community. He and fellow All Black Olo Brown took charge of a branch in Otara in 2000, but fell out with another founding director, Melino Maka, who threatened to sue the company for $50,000 in a dispute over lost wages.

Maka dropped his threat and says now that he has a lot of respect for Jones. He and Jones worked together collecting emergency supplies after the tsunami that hit Samoa and Tonga last year.

In 2001, while coaching the Manu Samoa rugby team, Jones was appointed community partnership manager for the Auckland University of Technology (AUT). He pushed for a Pacific voice at the "head table", finally winning in 2004 a Pasifika Advancement Office with a seat in AUT's top executive team.

Since 2006, just before ending his Manu Samoa term, he has been group strategic manager for Auckland-based Pacific shipping company Reef Group. "Reef is an entrepreneurial company but also philosophically very committed to the Pacific," he says.

MENTORS BRING OUT STUDENTS' POTENTIAL

"What do you know about this programme?" asked mentor Danny Liuliu-Afoa as a new intake of four Year 10 boys sat down in the careers room at Kelston Boys High School.

"We're dumb," one boy replied.

"No, you're brainy," said the mentor. "You guys get selected by Mr Samuela [Pacific dean]. He sees the potential in you guys and knows that you guys are great students and that you maybe need this programme to support you."

The Village Trust's youth mentoring programme takes 30 students at each of nine high schools from Onehunga to Massey.

The format and selection procedures vary from school to school but at Kelston Boys, Daniel Samuela says he chooses students who have potential but need support. The most at-risk students are supported by another trust.

Students enter the programme in Year 10 and have one group session a week with their mentor for as long as they need it, often until they leave school. They can request extra one-on-one sessions.

At their first session this week, they filled in short questionnaires about their strengths and weaknesses, their favourite music, what they loved and hated most at school, and how they liked to get positive feedback from their parents - hugs and praises, gifts, or going out for dinner or a movie.

Later they will fill in more-detailed check sheets to assess their personalities on a four-part scale: peaceful, playful, powerful and precise.

They will have to specify their interests, skills, achievements and their short-term and long-term goals.

"We work on your career goal planning, we see what subjects you are taking, we see what you are passionate about," Liuliu-Afoa told them.

"We want to find out whether the subjects you are taking now are going to suit you when you do NCEA."

Chris Suifua, now in his third year in the programme, in Year 12, says the programme has helped him work towards studying computer science at Auckland University.

"Before this programme I was unsure of my goals," he says.

Marcus Estall, who aims to join the police, says the programme taught him how to concentrate in class.

"They tell me to go sit in the front, so I went and did that. I thought, 'oh well, I'll give it a try'," he says. "From then on I've just been sitting in the front, paying attention."

Meriana Toki, now an 18-year-old student at Unitec aiming to be a youth worker, was referred to the programme in Year 12 at Rutherford College because she was skipping school when her mother was in hospital with tumours.

"There was just me and my mum at home," she says. "I didn't want to go to school at that time."

She says her mentor "helped me to release some anxiety" and helped her to set goals and work towards them.

Albert Fale, 20, the youngest of six children of parents who migrated from Samoa, says he was "just wandering" until he was referred to the programme at Kelston Boys in 2005.

In a series of one-on-one sessions, his mentor Paat Mose "helped me to believe in myself".

"He stayed with me. He expanded my horizons to tertiary education," Fale says.

"It really helped me spiritually as well. It helped me with my family. It helped me trying to set more goals, trying to make a difference."

Fale now leads a traditional Samoan dance group and has become the first member of his family to go to university, pursuing a business degree at AUT. He is also the elected Pasifika affairs officer for the AUT student union.

"I'm planning ahead that in 10 years time I'll become a CEO," he says. "I'm taking it step by step."