Thursday 22 August 2019

Isa Nacewa: Jonah was a 'humble and 'inspirational' man

Leinster captain pays tribute to superstar who changed the game

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu
Isa Nacewa: "He's an absolute hero. He changed the way wing play can be done."
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Anyone who was lucky enough to cross paths with Jonah Lomu has their own special memory of the man who transcended rugby from the moment he announced himself on the world stage at the 1995 World Cup.

This writer had the pleasure of meeting Lomu last June and the sheer humility of the man fitted every glowing tribute that has been paid to a genuine legend of the game since his untimely passing.

Lomu spoke of how his two sons loved hurling and how he often had to explain to his neighbours that they weren't "stick-fighting" but in fact were playing "one of the best sports in the world."

It was a mark of the man, just how easily he could relate to those around him but on the pitch, he was a fearsome beast whose skills often defied belief.

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Lomu and Isa Nacewa both grew up in Auckland but had very different upbringings and the Leinster captain tells a story that in many ways typified the professionalism of the man who became the world's first global rugby superstar.

"We were with the Classic All Blacks and that's a different atmosphere in itself. What struck me was, we were playing a World XV in Singapore (2010) and Jonah was preparing like it was a Test match," Nacewa recalled.

"He was in the corner with a towel over his head and his headphones on. There was no need... well it's a very different sort of environment, it's like playing with the Baa-Baas (Barbarians) and there he is preparing quietly to himself.

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"You could see that he knew what type of global superstar he was but he was just so humble that you could sit down and talk to him, he'd talk to anyone, he'd talk to strangers on the street."

For everyone connected with rugby, Lomu was an inspiration but in New Zealand, he is looked upon as a god.

Illness denied him the opportunity to add to the 63 caps that he won for the All Blacks as well as the 37 tries he scored across a seven-year career that was cut far too short.

"It's a tragedy. I knew him, I was in absolute shock when I woke up," a visibly emotional Nacewa said.

"I didn't really want to believe it, there were so many others with Norm Berryman and Jerry Collins. It's an absolute tragedy.

"He's an absolute hero. He changed the way wing play can be done and there's not a week that goes by where you don't see him running over Mike Catt on a TV in New Zealand. It's always on a billboard or on every highlight reel in New Zealand.

"If you think of New Zealand rugby icons he's, if not it, one of the icons. That will never change. He changed the game, he's a global superstar. He'd leave New Zealand and get swamped just as much, so thoughts go to his family."

His tough upbringing has been well documented, with his father violent towards Jonah and his mother but he still managed to achieve great things and forge a legacy that will never be forgotten.

As Nacewa elegantly explained, Lomu was brought up in the poorer part of their city, Auckland, and attended a school that has become a nursery for future All Blacks.

"He would have grown up in South Auckland, probably in Otara, which would be sort of the poorer part of Auckland at the time.

"So (it was) a very tough upbringing in those neighbourhoods and he came from nothing," Nacewa maintained.

"He went to Wesley College. That would have been a proud rugby school. In general they were always tough but when he came out the way he did, a whole lot of players followed.

"Look at the Wasps team from last weekend and Frank Halai, Charles Piutau and Sailosi Tagicakibau all came from Wesley. It boosted the profile and a lot of top players have come from that school and still do.

"What he did is inspirational. He would just stop and talk to anyone on the street even though he needed to live a private life. He was always willing to give people time."

And that's what made Lomu stand out from many of the other stars of the game. Truly, one of a kind.

Isa Nacewa was speaking at the launch of Life Style Sports' international online delivery service

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