Monday 23 September 2019

Jonah Lomu: I told the doctor, 'in 40 minutes, make sure you've got an ambulance ready'

Twenty years ago Jonah Lomu made the World Cup his own, but the pursuit of All Black glory almost cost him his life. He explains how he pushed himself to the limit on and off the field and why he’ll be taking time out of this year’s event to bring his children to Kerry

Twenty years after setting the rugby world alight, Jonah Lomu still cuts an imposing figure despite the kidney illness that has ravaged his body
Twenty years after setting the rugby world alight, Jonah Lomu still cuts an imposing figure despite the kidney illness that has ravaged his body
In action against Ireland during the 1995 World Cup
In his capacity as a Heineken ambassador
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

After a day-long blitz, the Blessington U-14 Gaelic football squad were more interested in the food being served in Quinn's pub in Baltinglass than the fare being offered up on the big screen.

Ireland were kicking off their Rugby World Cup campaign in faraway South Africa, but west Wicklow is far from rugby country, and even when Gary Halpin scored his famous try and then started giving the All Blacks the finger, the focus remained largely on the crisps and coke.

Then, a giant figure strode into our lives and over several Ireland tacklers before everybody's hero Simon Geoghegan hauled him down close to the line.

Suddenly all eyes were glued to the screen as a 20-year-old ran roughshod over Ireland, scoring two tries and causing general havoc every time the ball went near him.

You remember where you were when you first saw Jonah Lomu.

On that day in 1995, he was already changing his sport and opening it up to new audiences. Over the course of the following month, he would capture the imagination of fans around the world and become the game's one true superstar.

History may look at the South African World Cup through the prism of Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar and that events that inspired the film Invictus, but from a sporting point of view it was defined by the 6ft 5ins winger who looked like he came from another planet. Kids all over the world now wanted to be like Lomu.

More than any other player, he is synonymous with the tournament that kicks off at Twickenham next Friday night, yet he does not have a winner's medal to show for his efforts.

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Twenty years on, he still cuts an imposing figure as he strolls into the lobby of Dublin's Fitzwilliam Hotel despite the kidney illness that has ravaged his body.

He is 40 now and lucky to be alive. Three times a week, he must repair to a hospital for six hours of dialysis. Yet that hasn't stopped him travelling north for the World Cup.

Lomu is still a big draw and there is a commercial advantage to being in this neck of the woods, but over the course of the coming month he'll step away from the games, his speaking engagements and commitments as a Heineken ambassador to make the trip across the Irish Sea to visit Kerry.

He wants to show his sons Brayley and Dhyreille some of their heritage.

"My wife Nadene's side of the family have Irish blood in them, so I'm going to bring my two boys over here. They can't stop putting on their Irish jerseys running around the house," he says with a smile. "Of all the shirts, the Irish one is the one that they seem to choose. I can't do anything about it.

"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, so it's a big part of my trip to have my family with me and doing that; to come across to Ireland is part of what I think All Black rugby is all about. It's not just about playing, it's knowing where you come from.

"Their mum's grandparents are Irish and that's huge. After we go home, I'll probably take them across to Tonga and that's what it's all about, what rugby's all about. Learning the history of your family. It's quite meaningful."

The world of rugby is a very different place now than it was when Lomu came on to the scene in a blur of physical intent.

His displays at the 1995 World Cup were incredible - he scored two tries against Ireland and, while he didn't score against Wales, he made his mark elsewhere.

In the quarter-final he scored against Scotland and again did huge damage, but his four tries against England in the last four are unlikely to be bettered.

The final against South Africa didn't go his way, but it wasn't for lack of effort.

Only days out of his teens, he was performing wonders on the field but having to cope with unprecedented attention off it.

"When you're in it you're one aim is to try and win the trophy but at the same time it was being able to deal with something no one before me had ever gone through. That was the hardest part," he reflects.

"It was uncharted territory for a rugby player and, being 20 years of age, I couldn't ask the senior players 'how do you deal with this?' because none of them had ever dealt with it.

"So, it was basically sink or swim and I had to learn. I had to find ways to deal with outside pressure and also internal pressure as well, the need to perform on that stage.

"Management were doing their best in trying to keep me calm, like I had no newspapers for the duration of the tournament, there was security on our floor to stop people from randomly popping up, stuff like that.

"It got to the stage where we were just cut off from everybody, so you just didn't know what was going on outside apart from what you saw from looking out your window driving to the game.

"Nine times out of 10, my way of getting away from it was wearing headphones to keep me calm.

"That was my way of dealing with things, it was just a coping mechanism because being so young it was really easy to get pulled into the pitfalls of getting caught up in everything, in the emotional side of it.

"I had to learn that real fast for myself."

Music was his coping mechanism, his headphones allowing him an escape and his role as the man in charge of the team stereo and the music on the bus allowed him to integrate with a squad made up of gnarled veterans, exposing him to music he wouldn't have come across growing up in south Auckland.

On the pitch, he consistently delivered but ran aground in the final when the Springboks found a way of stopping him and made their own history.

His ability to deliver on the hype consistently was remarkable and it came from a grim determination that almost cost him later in his life.

"When I look back at it, I just didn't want to fail," he says.

"I didn't want to fail and I also didn't want to let my team-mates down. I think that's what a lot of people don't realise and people wouldn't understand in that situation.

"It was enjoyable to a certain degree, but when you play sport at the highest level and you represent your country, this is where you find your inner strength, you realise how far you're willing to go and how much you're willing to do in terms of playing.

"My last Test match was in 2002 in Cardiff and I remember coming in at half-time and I was spitting blood.

"The thing that was going through my head was, 'Okay, if I'm spitting blood, there must be something wrong, really wrong'.

"In that instance, what clicked in my head was 'My body's failing, this is the last Test match, how do you want to go out?'

"I remember our team doctor saying to me: 'you need to come off'. I just said to him, 'in 40 minutes make sure you've got an ambulance ready'.

"I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but it's an individual's choice. Rugby was my life and what I did on the field and how hard I pushed it was because of my passion and love for it.

"Looking back on it, it was just being able to push through that barrier, and I keep saying to people, when you're in a team environment like the All Blacks and you see your team-mates struggling to win, you don't want to leave. You feel you might let them down, and the pressure is on you not to do that.

"You make that choice - not doing it wasn't an option."

Lomu was, in many ways, the prototype modern rugby player and one wonders if his impact would be affected by the size of those playing the game now and the rigorous defensive systems applied.

He keeps a close eye on the modern game and disputes the idea that the size, speed and power of the current players is putting their bodies at risk, arguing that the scheduling is the real problem.

"Look at the French and English players, the number of competitions that they play and then you chuck on the Six Nations and the tours. . . where does it stop?" he asks.

"If you're talking about player welfare and you want players to last longer, then you have to look at other ways of doing it because if you keep chucking them in that much, the body will give up before the mind. The mind is always willing, but the body can't sustain that level of rugby.

"I did it for years, but I did it with a crook kidney."

He believes that up to six teams can win the tournament in England and is concerned for his old team's ability to perform far from home.

"The thing with the All Blacks is that there are quite a few of their players who have been there and done it and that experience helps, but it counts for nothing once the tournament starts because we're not in our own back yard," he says.

"In 2011, the players had the opportunity to go back home and be close to family and friends; this time they're trying to win it away and there is more pressure as well because trying to defend a title is always harder than winning it in the first place.

"The team is good enough, it's just a question of whether it can fall into place in every game."

And what of his boys' second-favourite team?

"If you look at the past couple of World Cups, Ireland have come with great expectations on them and it hasn't worked out," he says. "If they can handle the pressure and just play rugby, play their own Irish rugby, mate, we'll see them there or thereabouts.

"They're an amazing side. In 2011, when they put the Aussies away I was thinking they were on a roll and then I couldn't believe what I saw against Wales. It's that sort of thing, that's what I talk about when I speak about tournament rugby.

"It doesn't matter what you did last time, you have to keep growing, it's all about performing week in, week out.


"After a Test match, you can go home, whereas here you're living in each other's pockets every night, so it's about making sure you perform every day for six, seven weeks.

"The Irish are a team you don't want to play, you want to meet them when they're not at their best. When they are at their best, they're a hard team to beat."

At this World Cup, there will be players who weren't born when Lomu made his mark in 1995. Their only exposure to his performance comes from YouTube.

Still, they all know his name and it will be evoked every time the likes of George North, Julian Savea, Nemani Nadolo or Israel Folau take flight and combine their awesome pace and power and do something extraordinary.

No matter what they do, Lomu did it first.

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