A tribute to Jonah Lomu: 1975-2015

As luck would have it, the All Blacks chose to unleash Jonah Lomu late one Saturday night 20 years ago against an Ireland team captained by a hooker from Cork.
A tribute to Jonah Lomu: 1975-2015

Neither Terry Kingston nor the men under his command at a half-empty Ellis Park in Johannesburg had the faintest idea that they were about to be hit by such a force of nature that the game would never be the same again. Talk about unsuspecting victims.

The new wing was a monster allright, a Polynesian who had found a fortuitous escape from the mean streets and gang warfare of South Auckland but the blanks he fired in two pre-tournament matches against France hardly suggested that Ireland’s defensive system was about to be blown off its hinges.

Going into that World Cup in South Africa, they had no way of knowing that the youngster with the biblical name offered more than the raw power and the impression of being a very large second row marooned on the wing, far more.

Lomu’s game had a lethal concoction which, for the next few weeks, made him virtually unstoppable. He had the speed of an Olympic sprinter to make the most of his power and the dancing feet of a gargantuan Fred Astaire to send opponents into a whole host of culs de sacs and dead-ends.

He brought all those qualities to bear against Ireland to devastating effect, scoring two tries, his first in the Test arena, as the All Blacks won at a gallop.

An Irish team featuring the likes of Jim Staples, Simon Geoghegan, Gary Halpin and Neil Francis would not exactly have seen that as cause for celebration but they had got off lightly as they would soon discover.

Scotland in the quarter-final conceded one try to Lomu which put him on a collision path with England in the semi-final at Cape Town. Despite the warnings, England gave every impression that Lomu had hardly featured on their radar which, as oversights go, takes some doing.

England, being England, convinced themselves that they would make their tackles count, that Lomu would not find Will Carling’s men as soft a touch as Ireland and Scotland. After all, they weren’t Grand Slam champions for nothing.

Brian Moore, their pitbull of a hooker, even went as far as thinking, in true John Bull fashion, that England had the defence system to stop the boy with the biblical name in his tracks. He even went as far as to confess that England at their best would win.

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The All Blacks began smashing their resistance to smithereens before Lomu or any New Zealand player could get his hands on the ball. As Andrew Mehrtens feigned to kick-off to his right, England dutifully moved their men across, leaving a very large Lomu very isolated on the left touchline.

From his seat in the front row of the stand, Rowell could almost reach out and touch Lomu. England’s manager sensed that the kick-off would be switched and tried to bellow the message to the touchline which, given the pandemonium in the stadium, never had a prayer of getting that far.

When Mehrtens duly switched the kick off and sent Lomu careering forth,

England were in such a state that Carling and one of the Underwood brothers collided. The All Blacks grabbed the ball and a few phases later, Lomu had broken three tackles for his first try.

Three more followed rapidly in an exhibition the like of which nobody had ever seen before, or since. When he wasn’t running over England or around them, he went through them.

At the end, Lomu walked off with an almost apologetic demeanour, as if he wanted to say to his opponents: ‘’Sorry about that. I didin’t mean to cause that much damage.’’

In less than half an hour, he had done more to change the game than any player since William Webb Ellis picked up the football at RugbySchool. Just as the game would never be the same, so Lomu realised all too soon that his life would never be the same.

He found out two days later in Johannesburg while taking a break from preparations for the final against South Africa to venture forth into the local shopping precinct.

‘’I wanted to buy some toothpaste and the whole shopping mall followed me into this shop,’’ he recalled. ‘’So there I was stuck out at the back in the storage cupboard waiting for the security guards to clear a passage so I could get back to my hotel.’’

The Dallas Cowboys reportedly began talking in numbers even larger than Lomu in the hope of hiring him as an American footballer amid claims of contracts worth anything up to §10 million dollars.

‘’I turned it down because of my passion for the All Blacks,’’ he said. ‘’I had an offer to play for Bristol which was good but nothing compared to the offers from the Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. They were the biggest by miles, involving millions of dollars.’’

He also turned his back on global television networks, all willing to pay big bucks for a commercial revolving around the re-enactment of how he trampled all over England’s makeshift full back, Mike Catt.

Again, Lomu declined to cash in. ‘’You know why I did that?’’ he said when the subject resurfaced some years later. ‘’Because I didn’t want to be making money out of ‘Catty’s’ misery.’’

Over the course of a troubled childhood, Lomu had learnt the hard way to show respect, citing his mother as an example of tough love: ‘’She’s the only person I’m scared of. She clips me around the ear if I get too big for my boots.’’

Before the 1995 final, the Springboks joked about using an elephant gun to stop Lomu. Instead he, and the majority of the team, were stopped by something more prosaic, food-poisoning and the conspiracy theory that they were nobbled by a waitress called Suzy has never gone away.

While the rugby gods blessed Lomu with one hand, they cursed him with another. Nobody watching him cut swathes through the tournament which ended with Nelson Mandela’s victory jig could have imagined that Lomu had been stricken by a rare kidney disease, Nephrotic syndrome which necessitated a kidney transplant in 2004.

In retrospect, the most amasing aspect of his career was not that he scored more World Cup tries than anyone else but that he ever got as far as the international stage. He gave chapter and verse four years ago in the run-up to the tournament in New Zealand on the state of his health at Cape Town in 1995.

‘’I was about 50% fit that day,’’ he said. ‘’The condition meant that I was constantly tired. I had to fight for as much energy as everyone else and because nobody knew of the problem, people thought I was just lazy.

‘’A normal red blood cell count is 120. I was lucky before the transplant to have 90. The All Blacks doctor (John Mayhew) knew about the condition but I told him to keep it to himself.’’

His body’s rejection of the transplanted organ in 2011 forced Lomu to abandon plans for his reinvention in the ring as a super-heavyweight under the supervision of former world contender, David Tua.

He took it on the chin and despite dialysis becoming a daily part of his life, he went around the rugby world whenever he felt up to it, wowing them wherever he went during the recent tournament.

The All Blacks retaining their title left him with one last ambition – to live long enough to see his boys, six-year-old Brayley and five-year-old Dhyreille, become adults.

After a break in Dubai, Jonah and his family arrived home on Tuesday, the day before he died while still on the waiting list for a second transplant. How typical of the man that his last tweet was about the massacre in Paris with a photograph of his multi-story hotel draped in the Tricolour:

‘’Sois fort (be strong). Your (sic) all in our hearts and minds at this time. Vive La France. Ofa atu. Jonah and Nadene, Brayley and Dhyreille Lomu.’’

Ofa atu is Tongan for we love you. Not half as much as the world loved Jonah, an evangelist who did more than any other to spread the rugby gospel across the globe.

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