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Canada rugby coach takes emotional journey to New Zealand for father's funeral

Neil Davidson
·4 min read

Two quarantines and a 22,550-kilometre round-trip to New Zealand. Canada rugby coach Kingsley Jones has been on an emotional journey of late.

Just getting the green light to attend his father's funeral required an exemption from the New Zealand government, with borders closed due to COVID-19.

Phil Kingsley Jones died Sept. 15 in Auckland at the age of 72.

"It was a tough old trip," said his son, who was reunited with his two sisters and their extended families in New Zealand.

Jones made it back to Canada last Wednesday, after a 17-hour layover in Los Angeles. Now quarantining at home on Vancouver Island, he is preparing for a November high-performance camp — from his bedroom and home office.

"Much happier to be back with my family, although I can't give any of them a cuddle," said the former Wales captain.

Phil Kingsley Jones lived many lives.

To most, he will be remembered as the manager behind the late All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu. He also coached Tonga, was well-connected in New Zealand rugby and helped launch the career of more than a few players with Pacific Island connections.

Born in Wales, he was a coal miner and factory worker who played club rugby for Ebbw Vale and Abertillery in the '70s. After winning seaside resort chain Butlin's "Search for a Star" in 1977 and appearing on the British TV talent show "New Faces," he launched a new career as a stand-up comedian.

He moved to New Zealand in 1983, returning to rugby and coaching. Six years later, his life change after being introduced to a 14-year-old Lomu.

"Jonah was my introduction to this world (as manager) and I was with him right through his career, " Kingsley Jones told the Guardian newspaper in 2005. "It was his idea for me to represent him — he trusted me and I suppose show business had made me a little streetwise."

His 2011 autobiography was titled "Kingsley Jones. How Did I Manage That?"

"Quite a remarkable life, really," said Jones. "He filled it, that's for sure."

Kingsley Jones' funeral was special with former All Blacks captain Kieran Read and others performing the haka in his honour at the Counties Manukau Stadium in Pukekohe.

"You couldn't ask for a better sendoff," said Jones.

After the service, mourners gathered in the Phil Kingsley Jones Room inside the grandstand. Many wanted to show their appreciation.

"Lots of positives," said Jones. "It's unfortunate we have to wait until we die before all those things are recognized, for everybody really. Not just my Dad."

"He touched so many people, from all ages," he added. "He had the ability to give people confidence. People warmed to him. His communication skills were exceptional."

Jones spent two weeks dealing with New Zealand immigration before being able to travel. He got clearance just 10 hours before the last flight that would get him there on time.

That included two weeks in quarantine upon arrival in a government-run hotel, with COVID tests on Day 3 and 11.

"Basically in lockdown, on my own. Proper self-isolation. I was fortunate I had a balcony on my room, a small balcony area. We were allowed to use the car park as an exercise area between certain hours."

In all he had four days of freedom in New Zealand in the midst of four weeks of self-isolation.

The anxiety had lasted longer than that. His father had been in declining health since falling at home several months earlier. There were many ups and downs, with Jones forced to deal with the uncertainty from half the world away.

While in New Zealand, Jones marvelled at the vastly different presence of the pandemic, as shown by the New Zealand-Australia test match he attended Oct. 17 with 46,048 others at Auckland's Eden Park.

"It was a very strange feeling, to go back to normality," he said. "You're standoffish. People approach you, people shake your hand and you don't want to shake hands."

No one was wearing a mask. "It's just normal life again. Just like we knew it," said Jones.

The Canada coach will be able to take charge of a three-week high-performance camp that starts Nov. 9 in Langford, B.C., with 36 domestic players. The camp will be closed, taking place in a bubble of 50 people including coaches and other staff.

The Canadian men's team last saw action at the World Cup in Japan last October. Subsequent matches have been called off, with an Oct. 30 match against the U.S. at B.C. Place Stadium the latest cancellation.

Jones does not expect the national team to see action until next July, with a game against England — possibly in Toronto — and one other match in the works.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press