Creatine may be linked to Jonah Lomu death, says former team-mate
A former team-mate of Jonah Lomu, who suffered the same rare kidney condition as the late All Blacks legend, believes the supplement creatine could have been responsible for their health problems.
Joeli Vidiri (42) played on the opposite wing to Lomu for the Auckland Blues in the 1990s and won two caps for the All Blacks.
Both players were diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disease that affects only three in 100,000 of the population.
Vidiri, who lives in the Auckland suburb of Pukekohe, was first diagnosed with the disease 15 years ago and finally underwent a transplant last May.
Lomu had a transplant in 2004 but the new kidney failed seven years later, and he died of a sudden heart attack last November at the age of 40. His death was almost certainly linked to his kidney problems.
Vidiri, who has two children and works in an Auckland hardware store, believes both his and Lomu's rare kidney condition could have been caused by creatine. The substance, which is produced naturally in the body and is not banned, aids muscle growth.
The Blues squad began to take it as part of their training regime in the late '90s. Crucially, Vidiri says Lomu took the substance even after being diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome in late 1995.
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Medical experts believe this would almost certainly have exacerbated the winger's condition.
Vidiri said: "We were in our prime and enjoying ourselves, and you ask, 'why us?' It's a question we can't answer for sure. Lots of people have been telling me about creatine and it does make you wonder. I would be happy if somebody came through with a study to help with that and to help the young people who are taking it now.
"We need to know what are the side effects of taking it. I would love to know that because we can advise the young people about the right way to go."
The duo first started playing together for Counties Manakau in 1994, and then for the all-conquering Auckland Blues from 1996.
They were coached by Graham Henry, who later led the All Blacks to the World Cup triumph in 2011 and included stellar names such as captain Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke and Olo Brown. As well as being the dominant side in New Zealand, the Blues won the Super 12 competition in '96 and' 97.
Vidiri, who was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome in October 2001, said: "We used to be given a really big container of it (creatine) every few months.
"Instructions were written on the back and we would take the container away with us. We used to mix it with water and it would puff you up. I can't remember how much we would take any more. We took it before we trained and after too.
"Jonah would take it, too, though maybe not as much, because he was already on the drugs for his kidney condition. We took it from '97 onwards. We used to have a corner in the dressing-room where we would sit together.
"We were good mates. When you're young, you're so desperate to be up there, to get anything that can help you move forward with your rugby career.
"There was a lot of pressure on us, because we had to perform. We had just started to be paid, it was semi-professional. We had to perform week in, week out. For the Blues, you had to perform to be in the starting line-up the next week.
"The supplements were part of that because you wanted to get stronger. The game was getting tougher and faster. You wanted something to help you improve in your rugby career.
"I stopped taking creatine when we started to get worried about what it was doing to us. As soon as there were rumours about it, I stopped."
Dr John Mayhew, who was Lomu's personal GP as well as being the All Blacks' doctor, denies that the legendary winger took creatine.
"Jonah never took creatine," he said. "We knew he had a renal impairment for most of his career, so he definitely was not taking it.
"It is not a banned substance, but as a rule of thumb I advise anyone with kidney problems not to take it."
Professor Philip Kalra, consultant nephrologist at Salford's Royal Hospital, said that significant creatine use would have worsened Lomu's kidney condition.
"I don't know what dietary advice he was given, but with Lomu heading towards dialysis, he should have been given advice not to take it," he said.
"There is no evidence that creatine hampers kidney function in a healthy patient. However, it could accelerate the loss of nephrons - the units that filter blood - in someone with a pre-existing condition. Excess creatine use can definitely exacerbate pre-existing kidney conditions."
Kalra said that there was evidence that "massive people are more predisposed to nephrotic syndrome" and research has shown that Polynesians to have a higher pre-disposition towards the condition than average.
Fitzpatrick, who captained Lomu and Vidiri for both the Blues and All Blacks, admitted that members of his Auckland side routinely took creatine, but insisted that its use was closely regulated.
"We had sports science and trainers at the time," he said. "It's all about the way you use creatine. It wasn't simply a case of being given a container and getting told 'go take it'. There was supervision, there was advice, and not everyone was on it. I certainly wasn't a big user of it myself."
Creatine has been a popular dietary supplement for rugby players for more than 20 years. Former England scrum-half Kyran Bracken said that players had used it both in the run-up to, and during, the World Cup-winning campaign in 2003.
"Some of the players who wanted to get bigger certainly used creatine," Bracken said. "I have no idea whether it's good or not. For me, it was more important to be light and fast and I didn't want to build up too much muscle, so I didn't use it. But a lot of the lads did, definitely."
Nutritionist Fred Wadsworth, who worked with England under Clive Woodward, said any professional player who failed to use creatine was "missing a trick".
"Any forward would be mad not to take it because of the benefits in terms of bulk and power," he said. "It is legal and has been widely used in rugby for two decades, without any problems.