The National, Friday November 20th, 2015
By Harris Choy
WE walked up to the stage from opposite ends of this magnificent conference hall in one of Johannesburg’s posh hotels to collect our awards.
Jonah Lomu arrived first to shake President Nelson Mandela’s hand and accept his “Player of the Rugby World Cup”.
It was a popular decision even though the All Blacks finished second in that ‘95 tournament, but there couldn’t have been anyone more deserving – not even South Africa’s cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar. If there was, it would have been one of the greatest injustices in sport. But, like they say in Papua New Guinea, “anything can happen” in South Africa when it comes to rugby.
A rather muted reception, compared with Lomu’s, greeted my name and my approach to Mandela.
Nevertheless, I was bursting with pride when the leader of the Rainbow Nation, who had campaigned so unreservedly to bring this cup tournament to South Africa, handed over my rugby writers’ award.
What followed underscored the humility of the rugby great Lomu, who had just taken the ’95 Rugby World Cup and the sport by storm.
Lomu waited at the side of the stage after accepting his award. He waited for me.
Even though we had not actually seen things eye to eye for about a year, this colossal of a man, the biggest thing that has happened in the sport, humbled himself to congratulate me and escort me to my seat.
“You are my Kiwi bro,” he said.
How could I write another bad word about this man again?
Over the four-five weeks then, reporters, broadcasters, commentators, columnists and other journalists could not have enough of Lomu. He was simply that big, and so suddenly.
Everyone including celebrities – Tina Turner of “Simply the Best” fame included — wanted a piece of him.
You’d think a journalist has just won an award if he or she managed to get an exclusive quote out of Lomu. The demand for Lomu was phenomenal.
So much so, that the All Blacks team management resorted to handing out clips and written quotes from Lomu two days out of any All Blacks’ game in the Cup and on game days.
There were journos from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fleet St, News of the World, BBC, CNN, you name it, they were there. Half of them arrived late after Lomu had humiliated England in the semifinal. A lot of the journos were not interested in rugby or sport.
They wanted to know who Jonah was, what he ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, how much taro he ate, if he had a girlfriend, a family, parents, brothers and sisters, his school, home, how he lived. It was crazy at times and it drove the All Blacks team management nuts.
Proud as he was, Jonah never allowed success get to his head. Even with sponsorship and a pay packet that could afford him a NZ$1.3 million mansion in New Zealand’s capital Wellington, and at least five vehicles including a Hummer (priced about K600,000) and a ’63 Mustang.
Lomu became the face of Ronald McDonald House in New Zealand, a children’s charity to which he contributed generously.
He became the patron of Kidney Kids NZ, and more recently an ambassador of Unicef NZ.
Lomu was indeed one player who brushed aside the after-match rush and stopped often to oblige to autograph-hunters and became a regular face in charities.
It was perhaps why donors lined up when he was in need of a kidney, a problem that started when he first broke into big-time rugby in 1994.
He was waiting for a second kidney transplant at the time of his death (this week).
Lomu suffered from a rare disorder – nephritic syndrome.
When the donated kidney (in 2004) started to be rejected by his body about seven-and-a-half years later, he became a firm prisoner of dialysis.
Though he had done most things in life, he wanted to do and could afford to buy what he wanted. His big ambition since he married Nadene Quirk, a work colleague of mine in NZ in 2011, was to live through the 21st birthdays of his sons — Brayley, 6, and Dhyrellie, 5 next week.
Lomu was selected merely for his potential by coach Laurie Mains for the ’95 World Cup.
The year before that, he was launched through the sevens version of the game and became an instant star with his size (119kg and 1.96m) speed (100m in 10.8sec), strength and power and some determination — a combination that lifted him to international fame — the first international superstar.
His total income was easily beyond K2.6 million a year. That kept increasing for at least 10 years.
He was a judge at Miss Universe and Miss World. His star appearances were many more.
Two versions of his book “Jonah, My Story” were sold out and he had his own X-Box game.
He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s movie “Invictus” about Nelson Mandela and the ’95 World Cup. Sponsors had to be rejected by his agents.
Lomu was a catalyst in rugby turning professional in 1996. He was a major factor why the New Zealand Rugby Union and the International Rugby Board had hold on as authorities in the game.
There was a major threat of the game being taken over by an Australian magnate — much like the one-day game in cricket. When Lomu signed on to remain with NZ rugby, the Aussie magnate backed off.
He was the only New Zealand player who was paid a salary by the NZRU, but could decide on his own sponsorship — who to take on and how much to charge.
While Lomu found fame and his future in the 15s game, he loved the sevens version where he found close friends and more freedom and space to use his physical strength.
Two masters of sevens — Eric Rush (NZ captain) and Waisale Serevi (Fiji captain) — were Lomu’s favourite rugby players of all time. Serevi for his breathtaking skills and Rush for no-frills approach and off-field clowning.
Rush, a lawyer and an accomplished after-dinner speaker, once told a charity event in London: “Jonah, there is no one like him in rugby.
When you’re in danger (of losing), just look for him and give him the ball. You all might be wondering how this guy is so big, so strong, so fast.
I spied on him demolishing eight Big Macs (big burgers) and five large chips for breakfast.” Lomu’s rise to fame came in that Cup semifinal against England when he ran through or trampled over three opponents to score. He scored four times in that game.
“That bloody road train (Lomu) ran over me,” England fullback Mike Catt commented after the game as he nursed his bruises.
In the ’99 Cup, he smashed or fended through eight Frenchmen to score for the All Blacks. He carried four of them over the line.
“My way of thinking when I was running with the ball was that I will use every single option that is available to me. But if you leave me with no option, I will run over you,” Lomu told a media conference that day.
I was very fortunate to have watched this imposing figure’s brutal running and bullocking rampages in all of his 63 test matches and 37 tries.
There is no one on the horizon at this stage who can match him.
He became New Zealand’s youngest test player at his debut against France in Christchurch in 1994 at the age of 19 years and 45 days.
“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,” Lomu said at this year’s Cup in England.
“As Francois Pienaar (the Springboks captain) said: ‘It was not 80,000 in the stadium, it was 44 million.’”
In total, Lomu scored 15 World Cup tries — a benchmark equalled by South Africa’s Bryan Habana at this year’s tournament. Lomu was awarded the “Best Player in World Cup history”.
Rugby will greatly miss him.
- Harris Choy covered all 63 tests Jonah Lomu appeared in for the All Blacks. He is currently Associate Editor with The National in Port Moresby.