Lomu the game changer

Rugby will never be quite the same without its brightest star shining over it, writes MARC HINTON in a moving tribute to Jonah Lomu.

How cruel is life? How perverse its age-old antagonist death? Jonah Lomu was blessed with a mixture of physical gifts that made him the most feared rugby player on the planet, and ultimately its most recognisable face. Then he was undone, at the age of 40, by the same body that made him a man apart at the peak of his powers.

As I write this difficult tribute − because to eulogise the man just makes it so real − New Zealand has been in a state of almost stunned mourning since that fateful day on 18 November when it heard Lomu died at his home in central Auckland from complications resulting from his 20-year battle with renal illness. First Jerry Collins, then the iconic Lomu.

It has been almost too much to bear in God’s own country. Life goes on, sure enough. But in this nation we Kiwis call home it is just not going to be the same without Jonah Tali Lomu in it.

What is it they say? Only the good die young. That was certainly the case with Lomu, who rumbled across the green fields of south Auckland into our hearts in the 1990s as this giant man child with the unthinkable physical prowess and rather awkward disposition. Turned out, it was his colossus of a body that was racked with imperfection and his personality that became his most glorious trait.

Lomu wasn’t just an irresistible force of nature in his all-too-short prime, but a kind and generous soul who would give you the shirt off his back if your need was greater than his. That much has become abundantly clear as the stories have rolled in posthumously from people directly touched by this gentle giant of a man.

He may have left many an opponent lying crushed in his wake during his playing days, but afterwards his impact has been arguably greater as he combined his ongoing health battles with roles as an ambassador for his sport, as a figurehead for his charities and just as a decent human being.

Lomu’s rugby career was cut short (at the age of just 27) when he could no longer maintain the physical condition required to play this gladiatorial game at its highest level. But he refused to fade away just because his All Blacks innings had ended at 63 Tests and 37 tries. Thank goodness.

He was the game’s first true global star and remained, right until his death, its most recognisable figure, even 13 years after his last Test. Richie McCaw may be the greatest All Black with his magnificent career that has just come to a glorious end, but it’s hard to think of anyone but Lomu as the most iconic.

As the sporting world has mourned the loss of a special soul taken so young, the collective respect and admiration for this unique individual has rung out loud and clear.

Aussie columnist and ex-Wallaby Peter FitzSimons summed it up beautifully when he described Lomu in 1995 as ‘a freight train in ballet shoes’. National teammate Jeff Wilson says ‘there has never been a rugby player at the peak of his powers as dominant as Jonah’ and former coach John Hart considered him ‘a freak … the most special rugby player the world has ever seen’. Fellow Hurricane and All Black Alama Ieremia remarked that at times it was like having Superman on your side. ‘Sometimes I would just stare in awe and forget to support.’

Pretty much everyone who played with and against the great man has uttered similar sentiments, most marvelling at what he was able to achieve operating, at best, at 80% capacity because of his debilitating kidney condition.

But for countless others the tributes have been more personal tales of random encounters with a fellow whose generosity of spirit was matched only by the warmth of his personality.

Lomu touched so, so many people. Like the caught-short motorist who was shocked one  day when the great All Black volunteered to take care of his petrol fill; or the fellow whose father had died at a young age from kidney failure and one day, in a chance encounter, found himself being counselled by a man whose own body was overcome by the very same failings; or the daring young chap who, emboldened by a session on the amber liquid, jumped fences to arrive at the door to Jonah’s Wellington mansion and was shocked when his idol greeted him with a warm smile, kind word and polite escort back to the street.

A former schoolmate told of how Lomu kept a south Auckland rugby league club afloat with his generosity; they couldn’t keep him away from the Kidney Kids charity where he inspired countless youngsters battling similar problems. One of his final tweets was to Zac Forskitt, one of only two people in the world suffering twin forms of rare cancer simultaneously. Lomu was the only one of an array of celebrities the young Englishman’s father reached out to who actually took the time to reply. That’s who he was.

Of course, you South Africans knew that. You respected him so much you saved your best for him, regarding it as a badge of honour to keep him tryless in his 12 Tests against the Boks. And, of course, there was that memorable visit just recently to the stricken Joost van der Westhuizen that was − thankfully − captured so beautifully by cameras on hand.

It brought tears to watch him lean over to the wheelchair-bound former Bok, diagnosed in 2011 with motor neurone disease, and tell him: ‘The most satisfying thing is I can call you a friend. It keeps me going … Promise me you’ll keep fighting, man, because I will.’

Van der Westhuizen, who uses eye-tracker technology to communicate, said on Twitter after Lomu’s death: ‘Difficult to write with eyes full of tears on my eye tracker. Thank you for EVERYTHING Jonah. RIP my dear friend.’

If anybody had the right to be a bit grumpy it was Jonah. Life had dealt him a cruel hand, giving him the physical gifts to be such a glorious sportsman, and then sending him into a spiral of decline. He had many trying times, but almost never in public. Even when he could barely walk, or was racked with pain, he sucked it up to present as the gregarious giant he clearly loved to be.

As someone who covered Lomu’s career almost in its entirety, I now know it was a privileged position. At the 1995 World Cup in South Africa he single-handedly changed the face of the game with his unique blend of size, speed and power, and continued to make similar impacts until his final tour in 2002.

Fame didn’t always sit comfortably with him in the early years, when it wasn’t easy for him to articulate his thoughts. But over time he became an engaging fellow more able to vocalise his thoughts and, as a result, more central to his own story.

But I have one major regret from that period, and I’m sure it’s shared by my colleagues. We never knew at the time the extent of the health challenges Lomu faced, and thus never told the true story of this remarkable man’s achievements. It made me sick to my stomach to think I had at times judged him short of some very key facts.

RIP, Jonah. Condolences to the family you leave behind.

Life without you in it won’t be the same, though certainly the game they play in heaven just got tougher.

– This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt