Sunday 23 October 2016

Obituary: Jonah Lomu - All Black and rugby union superstar

Born: May 12, 1975, died, November 18, 2015

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Legend: Jonah Lomu is joint record try scorer in the Rugby World Cup.
Legend: Jonah Lomu is joint record try scorer in the Rugby World Cup.

Jonah Lomu, who has died aged 40, was rugby union's first global superstar and arguably the greatest player ever to grace the game; his giant frame - 6ft 5ins and close to 19 stone in his prime - allied with the pace of a sprinter who had beaten 11 seconds in the 100 metres, made him a formidable force as left wing three-quarter for New Zealand.

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He played 63 times for the All Blacks, scoring 37 tries. The most memorable of these was one of four he scored against England in the semi-final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, bullocking his way not just past but over and through defenders on his way to the line. The England captain, Will Carling, said ruefully: "He is a freak and the sooner he goes away the better."

Lomu, then only 19, had been a surprise choice for the New Zealand World Cup squad, having won only two caps with inauspicious performances in defeats against France. But the All Blacks coach, Laurie Mains, had seen something special in Lomu's unstoppable displays at the Hong Kong sevens, where he had run round Australia's great winger, David Campese.

He decided to take a gamble on the inexperienced Tongan, a bold decision that was vindicated by the seven tries he scored in the tournament. With the eight tries he went on to score in 1999, Lomu is joint holder with South Africa's Bryan Habana of the record for try-scoring in Rugby World Cups.

A remarkable aspect of Lomu's career is that he performed all his great feats on the rugby field while suffering from a serious kidney disease. Although this was identified as nephritic syndrome only in 1996, when he was 21, he had felt the debilitating effects long before and had always had to retire to bed after a game rather than go out on the town with his colleagues. "Imagine what I could have done healthy," he once remarked.

Although the All Blacks, weakened by a bout of food poisoning, had gone on to lose that 1995 World Cup final to South Africa, Lomu almost won the game for them with a devastating run that beat several defenders, but was halted close to the line by a despairing tackle from the Springbok scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen.

At the recent World Cup in London there was a moving scene when the two men greeted each other 20 years after the event - the former All Black with his ongoing kidney ailment and the former Springbok in a wheelchair suffering from the late stages of motor neurone disease. Lomu, always a generous man, never resented the loss of the World Cup, recognising that it was a historic moment in South Africa's history.

Lomu had a kidney transplant in 2004 but went on playing at various levels of the game until 2007. By 2011, however, the transplant was failing and for the last four years of his life he was on dialysis for six hours every other day.

His emergence as a superhero at the 1995 World Cup, where he was declared Player of the Tournament, coincided with rugby union's formal move into professionalism. His fame had an immense commercial impact. One effect was to persuade Rupert Murdoch that rugby held sufficient attraction to viewers to justify investing millions of dollars in the television rights.

One Irish player who faced the full force of Lomu was Brian O'Driscoll in an Autumn International at Lansdowne Road in 2001, towards the end of Lomu's All Black career.

"I remember being left one-on-one with him. There was inevitability about what was going to happen. I was only five or six yards out from the line and I knew that I was only going to be a road bump. Someone else was going to have to come in and finish the job off," says O'Driscoll.

"Once they got the ball into Jonah's hands, against someone that was 5ft 10in, simple physics would tell you there is only going to be one winner. He ran over the top of me and scored a try and that was part of their comeback. He was a freak of a rugby player, but an absolute gent off the pitch and someone you would really love your kids to look up to."

New Zealand ran out 29-40 winners that day, with Lomu one of five All Black try scorers.

Jonah Tali Lomu was born to Tongalese parents in Pukekohe, a poor area of Auckland, on May 12, 1975. He was taken to Tonga by his parents when he was young to keep him out of trouble after a cousin had been stabbed in a street gang fight in Pukekohe. He later returned to attend Wesley College in Auckland, where he excelled in rugby and athletics.

He started his career as a back-row forward before switching to the wing, which he described as "the best move I could have made." He was the first of the giant wingers who are now a common feature of the game. He was chosen for New Zealand's under-19s and under-21s before becoming the youngest ever All Black at 19 years and 45 days.

He played for numerous clubs at various stages of his career, including Auckland Blues, the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, North Harbour and Cardiff Blues. He won a gold medal with New Zealand sevens at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and was later inducted into the International Rugby Board's Hall of Fame. He gave his name to several rugby video games.

Lomu married three times. In 1996 he married Tanya Rutter, a South African, with whom he lived for four years before they were divorced. He married his second wife, Fiona, in a secret ceremony on Waiheke Island in 2003. They divorced in 2008 after he had an affair with Nadene Quirk, causing tension with her then husband, a rugby player who had married her only 10 months before.

In 2012 the couple became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had two boys, Brayley and Dhyveille, now aged six and four. Lomu's famous tries from 1995 have been often replayed this year on the 20th anniversary. "When they show clips of me on TV, my boys turn to look at me," Lomu proudly observed.

He died suddenly from a heart attack the day after returning from a promotional tour in England. His death brought warm tributes from many figures in the game, past and present, hailing him as the greatest of players and the most gentle of men. The former All Black player Ant Strachan recalled on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Lomu would often say a small prayer before a match to the effect that "he didn't want to hurt anyone in terms of any significant injury". Lomu certainly had hurt a few players, Strachan conceded, "but there was no malice in it."

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