The Rugby World is mourning the loss of its original global superstar. Jonah Lomu launched into sporting stardom as a fresh faced 19 year old at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But this came as no surprise for the many who had the privilege of witnessing, or even facing him on the field leading up to his record breaking world cup debut. As a 15 year old I was a witness, then as a 16 year old I was an opponent. On both occasions Lomu was representing New Zealand schools against the Australian Schools. I remember sitting high in the stands of the Sydney Football Stadium thinking that the New Zealand number 8 was impossibly larger than anyone else on the field, like a man amongst, literally schoolboys. He backed his size up with a barnstorming performance that night, which had tongues wagging at the prospect of a future world rugby sensation. The problem for me was, Jonah Lomu was still young enough to play another year of schoolboy rugby, and while it was a huge honor and privilege to be selected to represent Australia at schoolboy level to play New Zealand, I was faced with the daunting task of facing New Zealand’s newest prodigy…a 120kg prodigy at that!
That match against NZ Schools in Roterua in 1993 is now a bit of a blur, but I do recall certain moments vividly. Like my first tackle of the game, which involved Jonah Lomu picking the ball up from the back of the scrum and running straight at me to test me out. It wasn’t so much a tackle but rather him tripping on my flailing arms and legs as he steamrolled me like helpless roadkill. It was a tough day at the office for me, but with team mates like Joe Roff, Ben Tune and Mat Rogers, we put up a good fight. We were no match however for Lomu and his buddies, which included Carlos Spencer, Christian Cullen, Anton Oliver, the list goes on…
The incredible thing about this junior giant, was that he was not only extremely large and strong, but he was fast. He had two options when approaching a defender – either run over the top of you, or run around you. This was most evident when Jonah was selected for the NZ sevens team to play in the 7s World Cup in Hong Kong, leaving dozens of would-be tacklers in his wake, and millions of rugby fans excited about the arrival of a sporting phenomenon onto the senior International stage.
It was actually playing sevens where I would potentially meet Jonah again on the field. In 1998 Rugby 7s was introduced as a Commonwealth Games sport, and the Kiwis went to great lengths to secure the inaugural Gold medal, selecting the likes of Lomu, Christian Cullen, Joeli Vidiri, Eric Rush etc. etc.
I was lucky enough to be selected for the Australian team for those Games, with David Campese as our captain. And while ‘Campo’ was a rugby legend in his own right, he wasn’t exactly Jonah Lomu. The impact of Jonah’s inclusion in the NZ team was evident at a tournament charity function where all the teams submitted a jersey signed by the whole team to be auctioned off. Jonah’s All Black 7s team jersey sold for over 10 times that of the next highest sold.
Unfortunately and fortunately, we never met the Kiwis that tournament, which would have been in the final had we snuck past the Waisale Serevi and his flying Fijians in the Semi Final. Instead, NZ took the Gold and we had to settle for a satisfying Bronze medal.
During the Commonwealth Games, my team mates Richard Graham, Tyron Mandrusiak and myself toured around the Athlete’s Village interviewing various athletes from different nations and sport, as a fun memento of our experience at the games. I caught up with Jonah to ask him a few questions about his experience, and the video below has only been for private viewing, until now…
During my Super rugby career with the Waratahs, Jonah, who played for the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, and I were passing ships in the night as a result of injuries on both sides. Again, not necessarily a bad thing!
Fast forward to 2005, and I signed a deal with the Cardiff Blues, and there had been speculation that a certain Jonah Lomu was also to join the club. This came as a surprise to everybody, particularly as he had already retired from rugby due to health issues involving Jonah undergoing 2 years of dialysis and a full kidney transplant.
But the rumors were true, and sure enough, Jonah was now my team mate. It was surreal for virtually all of us on the team, even players like Martyn Williams who had nearly 100 test caps under his belt for Wales, and played against Jonah already a handful of times.
Yet this was a man who was on another level. Jonah had etched himself into rugby history as a true global superstar. Even though his presence was unmistakeable when he turned up at his first training session, his aura had been softened somewhat by the fact that he was far from his peak health and fitness. He seemed almost human.
As a result, he didn’t make the immediate impact everybody was anticipating, with the Cardiff Arms Park experiencing sell out crowds with fans eager just to get a glimpse of the big man in action on their own soil.
But being the true champion and professional that he is, Jonah fought his way back against the odds with hard work and determination, improving his fitness and playing levels to shades of those we had seen when he was at his dominant best, only to break his ankle in the penultimate game of the season against Scottish Border Reivers.
Off the field however, I was actually able to get to know the real Jonah behind the celebrity facade. Quiet and humble, good humored and generous. He handled his superstardom with grace, and treated the game and his team mates with the utmost respect.
He was quite the jokester too. I’ll never forget the time I was in the gym, warming up with some barbell squats. I’d increased the weight to 100kg building up to the serious lifting, when Jonah waltzed over and casually asked “Hey cuz, mind if I do a quick warm up set with you?”
“Of course not mate” I replied, expecting Jonah to crouch under the bar, placing it behind his neck in preparation for some squats. Instead, he proceeded to shoulder press the bar, hoisting it into the air with ease, completely astounding me with his strength, while emasculating me at the same time. “Thanks bro”, he said with a straight face as he walked away to another machine. I’m still not entirely sure if he was being legit, or if he was joking around with me, but knowing Jonah’s sense of humor, I suspect it was the latter.
That season would be his last as a professional rugby player, after which he stepped seamlessly into his role as ambassador for the sport, and various charity organizations.
It is with a heavy heart I bid farewell to this extraordinary human, whom I have idolized since the age of 15, and will continue to do so until my last breath.
Jonah, you may no longer be a living legend, but a legend you will forever be. Peace be with you friend, but more importantly, THANK YOU…