Towering figure in New Zealand rugby

Jonah Lomu: May 12th, 1975 - November 18th, 2015

Rugby followers could not believe such a large man as Lomu could be so quick on his feet. Photograph: Eric Luke

Rugby followers could not believe such a large man as Lomu could be so quick on his feet. Photograph: Eric Luke

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Ellis Park, Johannesburg, on June 24th, 1995, was the setting for the most momentous rugby union match of all time: the World Cup final between South Africa and the overwhelming favourites, New Zealand.

The South African president, Nelson Mandela, being introduced to the Springboks wing, James Small, before the match, could not resist the obvious joke. “You have got a big job today, Mr Small.”

For there, down the line, was Small’s opposite number, the gigantic All Blacks wing Jonah Lomu, who has died aged 40. Lomu was a wing, but he was 6ft 4in tall and 19st, the size of a lock forward, and a week earlier he had reduced Will Carling’s England side to rubble in a semi-final win in Cape Town.

Lomu, barely 20, had scored four tries. Rugby followers could not believe such a large man, little more than a teenager, could be so quick on his feet.

Joel Stransky’s drop-goal in extra time won the 1995 final for François Pienaar’s Springboks. So one of Lomu’s most remembered games is one the All Blacks lost, n extraordinary circumstances.

He went on to win 63 caps for the national side and score 37 tries. He played little more than 200 first-class games but his rugby career was cut short not by injury but by nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney complaint that meant that his playing days were effectively over before the World Cup in Australia in 2003.

By the time that Jonny Wilkinson had taken over from Lomu as arguably the best known face in world rugby, the All Black was undergoing dialysis five times a week.

Kidney transplant

Lomu had a kidney transplant in July 2004, and less than a year later he made a comeback of sorts with a try in a testimonial for Martin Johnson at Twickenham. But he injured his shoulder in the game and needed surgery, aborting a comeback with North Harbour, where he coached. Still a big draw, he then had a brief spell with Cardiff Blues. He scored his first try for the Blues in a man-of-the-match performance in December 2006, but the following April broke his ankle. There was a spell back in New Zealand with North Harbour and in France with the Marseille Vitrolles club, but the old power was gone.

His death, reportedly from a heart attack, came as a particular shock, since he seemed in good health on his visit to the UK for the Rugby World Cup this autumn.

Unpromising start

Lomu’s early years were unpromising. He was born in Greenlane, Auckland, the first child of Semesi and Hepi Lomu. But after the birth of a brother a year later, he was given to his mother’s older sister and taken to the Ha’aipai Islands in Tonga. For the next six years, his aunt and uncle brought the boy up before he was taken back to New Zealand by his parents.

Young Jonah’s problem was that he could not speak a word of English. His father was a heavy drinker who subjected his son to regular beatings. Lomu grew up on the streets, surrounded by violence. By the time he was a teenager, he was known to police and at the age of 15 his father threw him out.

The one thing keeping his life together was sport. He was an exceptional athlete – as a schoolboy he ran 100m in 10.8sec – and at his school, Wesley college, he was introduced to rugby union. The deputy head of the school, Chris Grinter, had coached New Zealand’s Secondary Schools side and saw that rugby could be a way to channel his young pupil’s aggression.

Another father figure emerged in Phil Kingsley Jones, a Welsh coach in charge of local rugby development. Kingsley took Lomu under his wing and by 1991 he was playing for New Zealand’s Under-17 side.

The teenager soon attracted the attention of the All Blacks selectors. Laurie Mains, then the All Blacks coach, recalled that Lomu, only a month past his 19th birthday and with only four first-class games behind him, was selected to play in two Tests against the touring French side in June and July 1994.

The All Blacks were beaten in Christchurch and Auckland and Mains, who knew Lomu had enormous potential for the following year’s World Cup, dropped the teenager, who by then had moved from the pack to the wing. Lomu remembered: “Sometimes he paid my bills for me; he was like that.”

Kingsley Jones had become Lomu’s manager, an important figure in holding his young charge’s life together. Lomu was shattered by his experience of being dropped after the French Tests.

As rugby union dropped its pretence that it was an amateur sport in the month that followed the 1995 World Cup final, Lomu became the newly professionalised game’s first celebrity. This had its perils.

Celebrity

In March 1996, when he married his South African girlfriend, Tanya Rutter, on the banks of Manukau Harbour, the media focused on the pair’s decision not to invite their parents. Lomu was caught speeding at the wheel of a Jaguar XJS when he had no licence. It was tame stuff compared to what he might have been involved in had rugby not been his salvation, but he seemed ill at ease with the trappings of celebrity.

The World Cups of 1995 and 1999 were the events that really demonstrated Lomu’s talents. He scored eight tries in the 1999 tournament in England and Wales, and there were other highlights, including the late winning try in 2000 against Australia in an epic Tri-Nations encounter in Sydney before a crowd of 109,874, the largest ever for a rugby union game.

Lomu and Rutter divorced in 2000. He married Fiona Taylor, who became his manager, in 2003. They divorced in 2008. He is survived by his third wife, Nadene (née Quirk) and their two sons, Braylee and Dhyreille.

Jonah Lomu was a modest, almost shy, man. Only on the rugby pitch was this quiet man a big noise.

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