Jonah Lomu had battled kidney disease for many years.
Jonah Lomu had battled kidney disease for many years. SMP Images - Marc de Tienda

1975- 2015: Jonah Tali Lomu, a humble man

Phil Taylor takes a look at the impact Lomu's death is having around the globe

THERE was Jonah Lomu and next there was rugby. That was the order for many around the world. That's why his passing this week made the homepage of the New York Times.

The Times found it necessary to explain what rugby was and why Lomu's passing was something to be noted. "Although largely unknown in the United States, Lomu (pronounced LAH-moo) was an international star, his outsize skills and accomplishments recognized almost everywhere else." They got the pronunciation wrong but were otherwise on the button.

"In rugby, as in football, the object is to advance the ball across a goal line, with the most points given when it is run across. That was Lomu's forte. At 6 feet 5 inches and more than 260 pounds [196cm and 120kg], he was a mammoth athlete, with shirt-busting shoulders and muscular thighs that made shrugging off tacklers (when he was not running them over) appear casual. (Rugby players wear no padding.)

"Men of Lomu's brawn rarely play wing, a position generally taken by the fleetest, most elusive players on a 15-man rugby union squad. But Lomu had a sprinter's speed that, in such a big man, seemed unfair."

It wasn't necessary to understand rugby to appreciate Lomu. Better to savour his destructiveness, swerve, velocity, the get-outta-here fend, unencumbered by debate about bugs in his defensive game.

The New Zealander of Tongan descent was a wonderful shop window for two countries. He put Tonga on the map. He was unifying for New Zealand. I didn't hear casual racism directed at him. Like Billy T. James, Lomu effortlessly cleared the barriers of bigotry, more because of his nature than the jersey. All hues celebrated him, wanted to claim him.

His story was a positive narrative to come out of South Auckland not that many years after the 1988 "machete murder" in the Otara Town Centre, a killing that sparked fears of a race war between Tongan and Samoan youths.

The man who died was 13-year-old Lomu's uncle, David Fuko. Lomu has said his uncle was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that animosity between the two island groups was overstated. But Lomu was well known to police and his mother, Hepi, acted fast to get him away on a boarder's scholarship to Wesley College near Pukekohe.

"Even in his pomp, when there was reason for opponents to fear him, he didn't give cause to dislike him"
Most people have a Lomu story. I have two. I saw him across the street in 1994, the day after he was first named in the All Blacks, one of the youngest to wear the baggy black jersey, as it then was. He was 19 years and 45 days. He flicked his eyebrows and called a thank you in response to shouted congratulations. He seemed warm, even as a kid.

A year later in a San Francisco sportsbar (the first time I'd seen TV screens in the loos), I watched in the pre-dawn that World Cup semi-final match in South Africa, alongside fans from England and the antipodes, and some bemused Americans. Two minutes into the game, Lomu ran right over poor Mike Catt, England's last line of defence. Rapture for Kiwis, shock and awe for everyone else. The English in the bar didn't sing another note of Swing Low, their rugby anthem. Three more Lomu tries were to come.

Everything was different after that. An expat Aussie took note -- Rupert Murdoch's money changed the game. Britain came to embrace Lomu. This week, the Queen asked our Prime Minister to tell Lomu's family that she mourns. On a blacked-out frontpage, the Irish Examiner ran an image of a silver fern, a single leaf gently falling.

Everyone respected Lomu, a man who never said, "Poor me". Not when he was dropped after two All Black tests in 1994, not in 1996 when the diagnosis of nephrotic syndrome was revealed; nor in 2002 when ill-health halted his international rugby career at 63 tests and 37 tries; nor in 2011 when his body rejected the donated kidney that had given him a new crack at life.

He took days as they came, before his illness and afterwards, when life had to be planned around dialysis sessions. "When I look in the mirror, what I see is my two sons," he told the Daily Mail just three months ago. "The two boys were miracles. Medically, it wasn't supposed to happen because of my kidney stuff. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be a dad.

"Now, when I wake up, instead of looking in the mirror and thinking, 'What am I going to do today?' I look in the mirror and think, 'I've got the two boys, now get yourself up and get yourself moving and try to be the best dad you can be'."

Before his illness, Lomu was wondrous. At Wesley College, a multicultural Methodist school in the rolling green hills at Paerata, he must have been a sight to behold on athletics day. Lomu won the 100m, 100m hurdles, 200m, 400m, long jump, high jump, triple jump, shot, discus and javelin in the same year.

He was briefly a bank teller before his elevation to All Black and the possibility of earning as much in a few years as his immigrant father, Semisi, a factory worker, had earned in a lifetime. He said his father, a man who became violent when he drank, never showed him love. Lomu channelled a boiling anger that came of that dysfunction into rugby, when it may easily have led to crime.

Before our eyes he grew from a shy young man to one of the best public speakers. He wasn't money-crazy but he was mad about cars and sound systems and a little careless about formalities. He forgot to get a driver's licence until police pulled him over when he was out driving a flash car. He created some sort of record for the loudest sound system in a vehicle and embraced out-sized headphones way ahead of the trend.

He couldn't hide his heart. After he married Tanya Rutter (the first of three wives) in 1996 without telling his parents, he apologised in tears on the late Sir Paul Holmes' television show.

"I told him how much I loved my mother," he said in his book, Jonah My Story. "Then I cracked up. The tears came and they wouldn't stop." He was 20, a boy giant who loved his mum.

He was a colossus who didn't quite understand the impact he had. He loved the game and shaved his position into his eyebrow. Even when illness reduced him to a shuffle, he vowed to return. And he did, playing a first-class match for North Harbour despite everything. He wasn't the Jonah of old. They are called fairy tales for a reason.

Journalist Peter Malcouronne, another Wesley old boy, bore passionate witness. "Jonah had moved heaven and earth to come back, but the speed just isn't there. And where the speed went, the power, the rhythm and that gargantuan left step followed," he wrote in North & South magazine in 2006. "Listening to talkback on the way home, the bandwagonists circle to say he was hopeless and slow ... So he tried. And yes, he failed. But doesn't this rather miss the point? Against odds even larger than he, Jonah played first-class rugby again, if only humbly. And while it's sad, wretched even, to see someone great slip to the ranks of ordinary life, there's poignancy in watching your hero rage against the dying of the light and, with grace, accept his mortality."

The game was everything, but Lomu got that it was a game. He was the All Black who stayed on the field in 1999 and shook the hands of the French players when they had killed our World Cup hopes. It must have been despair for him but he got that it was joyous for them.

He made unheralded visits to sick children in hospitals and to junior rugby clubs. Tom Booker's father recalled on Facebook this week the time Lomu turned up at Paremata-Plimmerton Rugby Club under-8s practice and signed the Superman T-Shirt Tom was wearing. "It was a shitty old night and Jonah obviously didn't have to be there. But he came along and spent more time than just a courtesy visit and the kids loved it. The T-shirt went into the memorabilia box."

All Black team-mate Eric Rush once recalled how Lomu gave the portable sound system he'd bought at the 1995 World Cup to the black woman who was cleaning his room. "The All Blacks weren't professionals then. But that's just Jonah."

He wasn't tight, boastful or mean. He said no to a big-chain ad that was to feature that Mike Catt moment because of how Catt might feel. Even in his pomp, when there was reason for opponents to fear him, he didn't give cause to dislike him. That is why there are wakes going on right now in Ireland and England, in South Africa, in fact anywhere they play the game.

- NZ Herald

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