Friday 20 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Lomu was a warrior on the park and a true gentleman off it

He passed away far too soon but the impact Jonah Lomu had on the game will never be forgotten

Jonah Lomu charges through the Irish defence during the 2001 Test match at Lansdowne Road
Jonah Lomu charges through the Irish defence during the 2001 Test match at Lansdowne Road
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

I hear the news as if in a dream. The television presenter lowers her voice to speak in a hushed, serious tone. And when I hear her say 'Jonah Lomu has died', it doesn't make sense.

How can it? Wasn't I chatting to him at the World Cup just four weeks ago? And isn't he just 40 years old, a year younger than me? Is this not the sort of thing that happens to people from a different generation?

Tragically not.

So first comes shock. And then comes fear, the kind every parent knows what I am talking about.

I stop thinking about Jonah Lomu, the first superstar of world rugby, stop thinking about the impact he had on the global game, stop thinking about the times I met him, that warm, friendly way of his, the aura he possessed and yet the humility he showed when talking to people.

Instead, I think of his children and his family and can't begin to imagine the trauma they are going through.

At moments like that, words are immaterial. Can any comfort at all be drawn from them?

The answer now is no. But at some point in the future they may draw some peace from the knowledge that their husband, their father, their son, their brother, their friend, wasn't just the brilliant person they knew and loved. He was also the most influential rugby player in the history of the game, someone who will be remembered for another 100 years.

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How do I know this? It stems from what happened in Cardiff last month.

We meet on the street on the way to the game. He remembers me from way back, a game at Ravenhill in 2001, an international (one of his last) in New Zealand a year later. We briefly chat. He's warm, gentle, friendly, funny - like he was every other time we met.

And then it happened. One-by-one people came up to him. 'Can we get a photo, please?' they ask. And one-by-one he says 'yes, no problem'. Except there is a problem. Minutes pass, five at first, then 10. France are playing New Zealand and kick-off time is approaching. Yet Jonah Lomu, the star of the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, is politely saying yes to every request for an autograph or photograph. Twenty years may have passed since he scored those four tries against England yet it may as well have been 20 seconds. Everyone knew him. He was the face of rugby.

And he was the man who changed the game. When you think back to what he achieved in that summer of 1995, it didn't stop at the end of that tournament. His legacy went way beyond those six games and way beyond South Africa and New Zealand.

It could be seen on the walk up to the Millennium Stadium last month. Cardiff was packed. So were the other venues throughout the tournament, from Exeter up to Newcastle. Sold-out signs were everywhere; more than 90,000 attended Ireland's pool-stage win over Romania, three times the number that sought tickets for the final.

What had this to do with Lomu? Everything. Remember the first World Cup? Only 14,000 people attended Ireland's quarter-final defeat to Australia. The game's audience was limited then. Then came 1995.

Never before had rugby seen a player like this, someone who was built like a forward and moved faster than any back. He could run the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds, was only 20 years old, probably hadn't lifted a weight in his life and yet had a more impressive physique than any other player in the tournament.

Neither England nor Ireland could stop him but South Africa worked out a way, detailing two, sometimes three, men to tackle him. So they ended up with the trophy but Lomu with the lasting legacy.

Never again would rugby be the same. The sport would turn professional and the marketing teams would crank up their act. With Lomu, however, they had an easy product to sell.

Kids wanted to be like him. Adults, who had previously paid scant interest to the game, wanted to watch him. I found all this out in 2002, when picked by Eddie O'Sullivan to travel with the Irish squad to New Zealand for a two-match series.

By now, my rugby career was fairly well established and people in my locality had a proud interest in how I was getting on. Yet GAA was their thing and while the chats would now and then touch on rugby, more often than not, the Championship would be their topic of choice.

Not in 2002. "You'll be facing Lomu down there!" they'd say. "Hope you come back in one piece."

Tragically, that summer would be his last as an international. Diagnosed with a kidney disorder in 1995, his career stalled somewhat between his first World Cup and his second.

What people forget is that he actually scored more tries in the 1999 tournament than he did in 1995 but by then the secret was out. He was no longer 'the freak' that Will Carling described after that semi-final in Cape Town.

Sports science had kicked in. Weights programmes were becoming the norm. The body shapes of players were being altered to compensate for the natural advantages Lomu was born with.

And by 1999, he was - in his own words - only able to function at 80 per cent of his ability.

When I thought about this yesterday morning, two things struck me: one, how good would he have been had he had been at 100 per cent of his powers?

And two, what was great about Jonah Lomu was not just the 15 tries he scored in World Cups, the 37 he scored in 63 All-Black test matches; it was the ability to keep fighting back from setback after setback.

You wonder how he did it. And you wonder how it must have been for him to go from a position where he was unstoppable on a pitch to being in a place where he had to fight for his health, and ultimately, his life.

Rugby players don't believe we are invincible but we do play tricks with our minds. Sometimes we get to a level of fitness - like I did in 2003 - where doubt and fear disappear. Every gym session goes perfectly. Your confidence soars. No opponent seems too big. Nor does any task.

And then something goes wrong. For me it was a dislocated shoulder, later a wrecked knee. I'd come back but in my head, I suffered. 'Can I do what I used to be able to?' I'd ask.

Was this what Lomu had to contend with after undergoing that kidney transplant in 2003? Bravely, he tried to come back and when I remember him playing for Cardiff in 2006 and later for Marseille, at the time I considered it sad that a once-great player was a shadow of his former self.

And then I read him say this: "Once I was this guy who'd been racing around down there on that field in 1999, running straight over people, scoring tries, winning games, having fun. And I ended up so sick that I couldn't even run past a little baby."

And my opinion changed. That comeback was as brave as it gets because deep down he must have known he wasn't the same player.

When your pace and power goes, so does your feeling of invincibility. That's hard for any sportsman to come to terms with.

But the harder thing for Jonah was that he had to contend with all this at 27, not at a later age that you have programmed into your head as the end-point of your career.

And yet even though he had every right to be bitter, he never was. The warm, friendly man I first met in 2001 was always as courteous every time our paths would cross. A warrior on the park, he was a gentle giant off it.

How do you make sense of what happened yesterday morning? The truth is you can't.

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