Jonah Lomu: Another one of the good dies young

Gerry Thornley: ‘His immense size and power was hard to even comprehend’

Jonah Lomu, considered to be one of Rugby's all time greatest finishers, played 67 test for New Zealand scoring 37 tries - here are some of his most famous scores. Video: ITV/Sky Sports

 

It’s actually hard to quantify just how big Jonah Lomu was. When he trampled through an array of English backs for one of four tries in the quarter-finals of the 1995 World Cup, the trail of prostrate players clad in white was like something out of a comic sketch. The game’s first truly global superstar was born.

There would be plenty more where that came from. He provoked shock and awe in equal measure, especially in opponents. Immediately from that point on, and for the next seven years, Lomu was the biggest character in the game. Bigger even than any figure since. He popularised the sport in a way no player had done before, or since.

“What it meant for rugby, that World Cup changed everything,” Lomu told the Guardian in August. “When I look at it now I understand my impact more. When they show clips of me on the TV, my sons (Brayley and Dhyreille), turn and look at me. They have grown up as the sons of Jonah and it’s a daunting task trying to explain to them what I achieved.

“I don’t have any regrets. Everything that I achieved in rugby I cherished. I was in a World Cup final in South Africa against South Africa when a country became one. As Francois Pienaar said: ‘It was not 80,000 in the stadium, it was 44 million.’”

Lomu transcended the sport, akin to Muhammad Ali. Generous to a fault, he freely gave of his time to all manner of good causes and charities, was an ambassador for Unicef New Zealand since 2011, and a patron of the charity Kidney Kids NZ.

There’s never been anything quite like him. His star should have shone longer on the pitch, even if it continued to do so after he retired. Alas, his career was cut short in 2002 at the age of 26 due to a rare kidney disease, nephrotic syndrome, and now, more tragically, his life has been too at the mere age of 40.

In the Guardian interview he was asked: “How would the 1996 Jonah Lomu fare in this tournament?”

“I’d fare quite well . . . it’s mass versus speed and I had a fair bit of both.”

That he did.

Second Captains

But there was something else about him as well. Although born in Auckland, he spent his early years in Tonga, where his parents came from. Off the pitch, he was the epitome of a gentle giant; yet rugby assuredly saved him from an altogether different life after a tough upbringing in South Auckland.

In an interview with Keith Duggan in these pages in 2004 upon the publication of biography, Lomu reflected on his days running with a gang called the City Crip Boys before his mother managed to get him enrolled in Wesley College, a bastion of New Zealand schools rugby and Methodist education.

“I guess it’s quite interesting to wonder what I would be without rugby – especially when I compare it to a lot of my friends that are behind bars or dead. More than my uncle ended up getting hacked up with a machete. That’s what I grew up with.

“These guys would kill you with their bare hands. There was a lot of bad blood that spilled over. Like I was at school playing footie when a close friend and relative got stabbed. And the worst thing about it was that he lived one street away from me and the guy who killed him lived across the road. We all knew each other. And it was over absolutely nothing.”

If rugby saved him, he in turn became a role model and inspiration to many young boys and girls of Pacific Island heritage who faced similar challenges at an early age. An iconic figure, he was genuinely loved in New Zealand, Tonga and further afield. He was Jonah. And everyone who met him loved Jonah.

Back in the days before the explosion in the internet media, when one-on-one interviews were more freely granted, this newspaper was fortunate enough to have an audience with the great man. His first direct Irish opponent was actually Anthony Foley in a New Zealand Schools v Ireland Schools game.

He recounted Jeff Wilson’s match-winning penalty with the last kick from near the touchline 45 metres out. “I was standing right behind him and I thought he’d missed. He kicked it so wide out and it curled around, and then I saw all the Irish boys just drop. I couldn’t get over the kick. It was like a golfer’s fade swing.”

Lomu himself was switched to wing from number eight when going on to play for the New Zealand Colts after leaving school, although as his good friend Zinzan Brooke noted yesterday, Lomu could have played anywhere.

“They saw me playing in a sevens tournament and they reckoned it looked a bit funny seeing a loose forward running quicker than a winger,” he told me back in 2002.

Within two years, at 19, he became the All Blacks’ youngest Test player in the two-Test series defeat to France and then, in his third Test against Ireland in that 1995 World Cup, he scored two tries in the All Blacks’ 43-19 win over Ireland. After another in the quarter-final win over Scotland came that quartet of tries in the semi-final win over England.

Back then, and ever since, Lomu retained the look of a starry-eyed schoolboy who couldn’t quite believe how his career panned out, on how Jonah Lomu became Jonah Lomu.

“Never dreamt it. Never ever knew it was going to happen like that. I just woke up one morning and, boom, everything just fell into place. It’s one of those things. I still wake up in the morning and ask ‘is this actually happening?’

“But there’s one thing my parents always said to me and that’s ‘never take anything for granted’. I definitely don’t take any of this for granted. Playing for the All Blacks. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and I know that there’s a few million people out there that would love to be in my shoes, and playing for the All Blacks. It’s something I’ve cherished since I played my first school grade side and I still cherish it just as much. This weekend will be my 58th Test and it’s going to feel like my first still.

“Playing for the All Blacks is still the number one. Basically you’d give your right leg for it. When you get ready to run out on to the pitch you know that you’ve got to do a job, to switch on and focus, and it’s the greatest reward in rugby, running out for your country.

“My mum’s always said the people you meet on the way up are the people you’re going to meet on the way down. So you treat them the same. I’ve always lived by that and also what you see is what you get. I’m not going to change myself for anyone and I give anyone I meet the respect they deserve and I hope they give it back to me. The fame game is the fame game. To me, I’m Jonah. Born and brought up in South Auckland, and Tongan by origin, and I play for the New Zealand All Blacks. And that’s it. Outside of that I’m anybody’s mate,” he adds laughing.

Unfortunately, later in 2002, his words were to prove cruelly prophetic.

His passing is so desperately sad, and has touched millions upon millions who never even met him, not to mention all those who were fortunate enough to do so. It’s said that only the good die young, and that certainly applies to Jonah.

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