Friday 30 September 2016

The big unstoppable juggernaut proved the inspiration for so many players

Published 19/11/2015 | 02:30

Jonah Lomu runs behind the posts to score a try during the All Black v Ireland rugby test at Lansdowne Road in November 2001
Jonah Lomu runs behind the posts to score a try during the All Black v Ireland rugby test at Lansdowne Road in November 2001

The first thing you noticed about Jonah Lomu was, unsurprisingly, his size. When your job involves meeting rugby players on a daily basis, you become a little immune to their physiques, but even after turning 40 and, after kidney disease had ravaged his body, he was an immense man in the flesh.

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Player interviews are routine in this job, but when the assignment came through to go and talk to the greatest player ever in a Dublin hotel last August, there was a different sense of anticipation.

I was 12 during the summer of 1995 and, as a Dub relocated to Wicklow just three years earlier, my walls were covered in posters of Jason Sherlock, Charlie Redmond and members of a Liverpool team that had claimed the Coca-Cola Cup.

Rugby was something to be enjoyed fleetingly in spring, until the big, unstoppable juggernaut picked up the ball against Ireland in their opening World Cup game and ran through and around everything in front of him except for Simon Geoghegan.

Seeing Jonah Lomu in full flight was an unforgettable experience. He was the prototype modern player and there are plenty of identikit wingers now, but back then in the world of baggy jerseys and lifter-less lineouts, he was a sensation.

Suddenly everyone wanted to play rugby in PE, everyone had a copy of the 'Jonah Lomu Rugby' computer game and everyone wanted an All Blacks jersey. Lomu was the sport's box-office attraction.

Twenty years on, he arrived in Dublin at the beginning of a promotional tour centred around the World Cup, accompanied by his wife Nadene and his sons Brayley and Dhyreille.

The jetlag was still having an effect when we met, but once he got his teeth into the topics of the upcoming competition and his beloved All Blacks, it was hard to get the next question in. Despite everything he had been through, the giant wing was as enthusiastic as ever.

Over the course of our interview, Lomu spoke honestly about his health, playing through pain, the pressures of that crazy breakout summer of 1995 and his hopes and aspirations for the tournament to come. Perhaps he knew his audience, but he also spoke with enthusiasm of his desire to take his two sons to Kerry.

Nadene's ancestors came from the Kingdom and, while he wanted to take them to Tonga to learn about his heritage, he also wanted them to get to know their Irish roots. "They can't stop putting on their Irish jerseys running around the house," he said.

"I want to take them back to Kerry where the family comes from - for me it's always been a huge part of my upbringing in an All Black jersey to learn about your past and where you come from. That's a big part of me. It's not just about playing, it's knowing where you come from."

He spoke of wanting to see his sons reach 21 unlike his father who also died at a young age.

It was a dream too far. That trip would prove to be his last. After watching New Zealand win the World Cup, he spent the last week in Dubai from where he Tweeted support to the victims of the Paris attacks. He then returned to Auckland where he died yesterday morning.

His loss will be felt throughout the rugby world. There will never be another Jonah Lomu.

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