Sunday 4 December 2016

Billy Keane: Night with Jonah full of laughs, even on one of the star's darkest days

Chance encounter with Lomu in Cardiff underlined his infectiously warm character

Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30

Jonah Lomu hands off England’s Jeremy Guscott and runs on to score his team’s second try at the 1999 Rugby World Cup
Jonah Lomu hands off England’s Jeremy Guscott and runs on to score his team’s second try at the 1999 Rugby World Cup

We met one night in Cardiff, the night Jonah Lomu's playing career ended for good. Here I was, a couple of years older than Jonah but very much in awe of him, like a small boy with an autograph book.

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But as the night went on, I saw the boy in him and the sadness in his eyes and the worry of the battles that lay ahead.

Jonah was a huge man but like many huge men, he was softly-spoken and gentle. He was a street kid but he didn't let the tough times define him as a man.

Jonah's Dad was an alcoholic and beat up his mother. A young Jonah deliberately provoked his Dad when the father came home drunk. His reasoning was to deflect the father's anger away from his mother so the father would beat him up instead. He was kicked out of home when he was 15 and lived on the streets in a tough area in Auckland. He was saved by rugby. He had been stabbed several times and one of his cousins had been ripped open by knives.

Back to Cardiff - we had a few laughs and a beer. A beer? I had a good few beers and he had hardly any.

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"I owe it to the man who gave me a kidney to look after it," was how Jonah put it. He had the kidney transplant, just two years earlier, and there was a row of untouched bottles in the counter in front of him. Jonah told us he only kept the beer in his huge hand to stop people asking him why he wasn't drinking.

It was a sad night for him in Cardiff but he didn't give in to it. The city was hopping. It was the night before the 2007 Heineken Cup final and the Munster fans were partying like only they can do with full on, no let up, but for Jonah, it was the end of his rugby career.

Players from both teams participate in a minutes applause for former All Blacks and Cardiff player Jonah Lomu before the European Rugby Challenge Cup match between Cardiff Blues and Harlequins at Cardiff Arms Park
Players from both teams participate in a minutes applause for former All Blacks and Cardiff player Jonah Lomu before the European Rugby Challenge Cup match between Cardiff Blues and Harlequins at Cardiff Arms Park

Cardiff Blues was his last shot. The home stadium was sold out on the four occasions Jonah played there. He played only 10 games in all. Dai Young, who was one of the coaches in Cardiff at that time, felt that Jonah was coming back to his best. The donated kidney gave him a foothold on a better life but also gave him another chance to resurrect his career. But then Jonah dislocated his ankle and that was that.

And so I met him on what must have been one of the worst nights of his life. I was in a queue for a club in Mary Street with my cousin Eamon and who should come up next to us, only Jonah. The queue took ages so we had a chance to talk. I have no doubt that Jonah could've skipped the long, boisterous line and walked straight in.

He chatted away. Eamon told Jonah he should join Munster and Jonah just smiled and said "wouldn't I just love to".

But it was a sad smile. Jonah told us he was leaving Cardiff and the game he loved so well. I said the wrong thing back and it upset him.

Jonah suffered from a condition known as nephrotic syndrome. His kidneys were packing up on him and the transplant gave him hope. Our good pal Tim O' Carroll had nephrotic syndrome and he had a tough time of it. But he never gave in or lost his sense of fun.

When Tim lost his first leg he put an ad in Buy and Sell magazine that read "FOR SALE, 7 RIGHT SHOES." So I knew that if the kidney transplant didn't work out Jonah was facing a stark future.

"Jonah", I said , "I have a friend who has your disease."

He was angry. "I do not have a disease. Do not call my condition a disease." Eamon said, "Billy didn't mean anything bad by saying that".

"Jonah", I said," I wouldn't say anything to hurt you. I'm so sorry."

There wasn't another word but after a few minutes he put his arm around my shoulder. "Sorry mate, but it's been a tough day."

I apologised again about the disease quip and told him about Tim and he laughed. But you could see he was a sensitive lad. There was anger there, but under the surface. But at the same time there was no sense of being hard done by. He was just glad to be here. "Happy to be alive," he said , "and upright."

Jonah met his friends in the club and the women were coming at him from all directions. Politely, he declined their offers. Jonah was a ladies' man, though. You could see that. He's a charmer.

He doubled over with laughter when we told him about the night Moss Keane was approached by a matron who asked him to come to her hotel room. "Thanks all the same," said Moss, "but I'll pass on your kind invitation. I'm in arrears at home."

Jonah was surrounded by his Welsh friends and we waved goodbye. Chips held me up. It was rough at that hour of the night. There were a good few drunks about and a fight broke out between two hefty young lads.

Jonah went between them. One lad struck out at him but Jonah shouted out at the top of his voice "stop, stop this is crazy."

" I have your back Jonah," I said and he replied "sh*t, now I'm really in trouble." The fighters recognised him and they stopped.

It was only on the day he died that I realised why he took on such danger in Cardiff late at night. He'd seen so much as a kid and he still bears the scars of street stabbings. And today I realise why he was so sensitive about the disease remark.

Jonah was told he could never have kids due to the kidney problem. He told me how lucky I was to have four and that I should look after myself.

There, among all the laughter and fun, he was carrying secrets. But sometimes miracles do happen.

Jonah Lomu, and his wife Nadine Quirk have two lovely boys. Brayley and Dhyreille were their "miracles". The kids and Nadine were the makings of him, he said to Des Cahill just a few weeks ago in an inspirational RTE interview.

He died on the day of his beloved mother's birthday and with Nadine's help, he forgave his father who gave up the drink on the day his son returned home. So Jonah had only one big game left.

"My goal is to make it to the boys' 21sts. There are no guarantees that will happen but it's my focus. It's a milestone that every parent wants to get to."

Jonah spent all his borrowed time with his wife and kids. The troubled child from a broken family became a sound Dad.

The good Dad died at home. Too soon and so sad but in the end, Jonah Lomu found love and contentment.

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