A Very Decent Human Being
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who died at his home in Auckland on Wednesday, transcended the sport of rugby union like no other player.
(This article is an extraction from the Mirror Sports Review)
The on-field deeds of Lomu, 40, captured the imagination of fans in all corners of the world during a 63-Test career for the All Blacks.
Off-field aspects of his private life and his ongoing battle with kidney disease added to a fascinating human story.
Standing 1.96m, weighing up to 120kg during parts of his career and clocked at under 11 seconds for the 100 metres, Lomu found his fame matching his outrageous physical gifts.
He became the first New Zealand sportsman to become a multi-millionaire while remaining based in the country, putting his name next to lucrative global advertising deals.
At his peak, the giant left winger would routinely swat aside, trample over and sprint away from tacklers on his way to 37 Test tries.
He was released on unsuspecting opponents at the 1995 World Cup, scoring seven tries in spectacular fashion.
His four in the semi-final against England – including one where he famously bulldozed fullback Mike Catt – are an abiding memory.
It was Lomu’s performance at that tournament that elevated him to iconic status and which reputedly prompted broadcasting kingpin Rupert Murdoch to buy the television rights to rugby, kick-starting the professional age.
Born in Auckland to Tongan parents, Lomu spent the early part of his childhood in Tonga.
In his book Jonah My Story, Lomu recounted his difficult upbringing in South Auckland.
He was abused by his father, Semisi, and became involved in violent, streetkid activity at a young age.
A key moment came when mother Hepi enrolled him at Wesley College, where Lomu learned about discipline and discovered his athletic frame was well suited to sport.
An outstanding age-group track and field performer, Lomu’s main love was rugby.
He played for the first XV in the fourth form and it wasn’t long before his uncanny talents saw him represent New Zealand schoolboy and age-group teams at No.8.
YOUNGEST ALL BLACK
He was noticed at the highest level via a televised national sevens tournament and just over a year later, against France in 1994, became the youngest All Black at 19 years and 45 days.
However, he failed to adjust to the positional requirements and didn’t represent his country until the World Cup.
Such was his impact in South Africa, Lomu became the most recognisable figure in the game, a status he held for much of the next decade.
Yet he came perilously close to missing the tournament altogether, as All Blacks coach Laurie Mains despaired of getting him up to sufficient fitness levels.
Only after Lomu had returned to sevens rugby where he came under the influence of fitness fanatic coach Gordon Tietjens, did Mains and his selection colleagues revise their plans.
In 1996 came the first sign of his health problems. Those, and an injury, saw him miss the Tests against the Springboks on the triumphant tour of South Africa.
Confirmation of his kidney condition, Nephrotic Syndrome, meant he missed most of the 1997 domestic season though he returned in time for the end of year tour of Wales, England and Ireland.
He achieved another distinction in 1998 when he won a gold medal as part of the sevens team at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1999 he was used for the All Blacks in domestic matches only from the bench as he struggled for his old majesty.
But at the World Cup, he was as formidable as he had been in South Africa four years previously, finishing with a tournament-high eight tries and scoring a magnificent matchwinner against England in the pool match at Twickenham.
Lomu also scored two tries in the semi-final against France and was one of the few to emerge from that disaster with his reputation intact.
Unlike many of his teammates, he graciously remained on the field after fulltime to congratulate the French.
Lomu remained in All Black squads until 2002, even though form fluctuations returned, and there were many periods when other talented outside backs such as Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga and Doug Howlett, looked more dangerous.
Clearly battling for pace and confidence, Lomu dropped out in the early stages of the 2003 Super 12 and soon after confirmed what many had suspected – his health problem had worsened.
He made a brave attempt to resume first-class rugby with Wellington for the NPC season but it was soon clear a return to top rugby was unrealistic.
He began kidney dialysis treatment in 2003, which affected his mobility because of the impact it had on nerves in his lower legs.
In 2004, he underwent a kidney transplant and the following year came back to play in England captain Martin Johnson’s testimonial at Twickenham.
He also had stints with North Harbour and Cardiff before resuming rugby in late 2009 with French club side Marseille-Vitrolles.
Lomu faced another health scare in 2011, when his body rejected the donated kidney, and he pulled out of the Fight for Life charity boxing event.
Lomu was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2011.
In recent weeks, he had been in Britain to attend the Rugby World Cup.