‘A global superstar . . . but as humble as can be’
Leinster captain Isa Nacewa recalls great All-Black winger who passed away aged 40
The athletics honours board at Wesley College, Pukekohe, in Auckland offers a poignant testimonial to the late Jonah Lomu. In one year at junior level, he won the 100m, 110m hurdles, 200m, 400m, shot, discus, javelin, long jump, triple jump, high jump and the 4x100m.
Others followed his pathway from Wesley to the top of the professional game. Three past-pupils Frank Halai, Charles Piutau and Sailosi Tagicakibau were members of the Wasps team that beat Leinster in the Champions Cup at the RDS last Sunday.
An extraordinary athlete, and an outstanding person, he was rugby’s first global star, one who transcended the sport and was a hero to kids around the world.
One of those who idolised him as a child was Isa Nacewa, who fleetingly played with and against him and much to the Nacewa’s delight was an occasional table companion at a sushi restaurant in Auckland.
Speaking at the launch of Life Style Sports international online delivery service, Nacewa, reflected on Lomu’s death at 40, following the kidney disease bravely borne.
“I knew him. It’s a tragedy. I was in absolute shock this morning when I woke up. I didn’t really want to believe it, there were so many others – [who have died recently like] Norm Berryman and Jerry Collins.
“I’ve had lunch with him a load of times; he’d always be floating around the sushi joint in Auckland that everyone usually goes to. I played against him when he was at North Harbour, played with him with the Classic All Blacks.
“He just changed the game really, a global superstar, but you get talking to him and he’s as humble as can be. He’ll easily sit down and talk to anyone, [especially] any kids around.
“He was probably (rugby’s) first world superstar. Everywhere he goes he gets recognised and I think even seeing him do the ad with Shaggy [Shane Horgan] only three months ago, he looked as healthy as can be. It’s an absolute shock.”
Nacewa used the world icon to describe Lomu – equally revered at home and abroad.
Leinster’s fullback played with a 35-year-old Lomu, retired at that point, for the Classic All Blacks against a World XV in 2010. Nacewa recalled: “I didn’t have that much to do with him [other than] when we were with Classic All Blacks; [that’s] a different atmosphere in itself. What struck me was we were playing a World XV in Singapore and he was preparing like it was a Test match.
“He was in the corner with a towel over his head and his headphones on. There was no need . . . well it’s a very different sort of environment, it’s like playing with the BaaBaas and there he is preparing quietly to himself.
“You could see he knew what type of global superstar he was, but he was so humble that you’d sit down and talk to him, he’d talk to anyone, to strangers on the street.
“He’s an absolute hero. He changed the way wing play can be done and there’s not a week that goes by where you don’t see him running over Mike Catt on a TV in New Zealand. It’s always on a billboard or on every highlight reel.”
Nacewa also paid tribute to the character that Lomu demonstrated in refusing to kowtow to his severe kidney problems. “It is inspirational what he did. He went off to Cardiff and then he came back to North Harbour and in between all that he kept kick-boxing and the like.
“He would just stop and talk to anyone on the street, even though he needed to live a private life. He was always willing to give people time.”
Easy to have a private life for him in NZ? “Ah no, not at all. You can’t not recognise him walking down the street. That was the fact.”
He also referenced Lomu’s tough upbringing in a poor neighbourhood that served as an inspiration for some that followed. “South Auckland has changed a lot in the last 20 to 30 years. He wouldn’t be the only one to come from very poor, disruptive backgrounds to be world-class players – [but] there are probably a lot of players out there who feel that they have followed in his footsteps.”