Sports

Sports: James McOnie Remembers Jonah Lomu

James McOnie remembers Jonah Lomu as an athlete whose imposing physical gifts were allied to a playful, vulnerable, huge-hearted man.

Watching Jonah Lomu in full flight was a thing of terrifying beauty.

The grace, speed and power he possessed was like nothing rugby had ever seen before. He was larger than life and people around the world knew who he was – the most famous Jonah since that guy in a whale.

I remember Lomu doing a photo shoot for a water company at Mt Smart Stadium. All the Warriors got wind of the fact Lomu was in their midst and they sneaked out of the gym to catch a glimpse of him with his shirt off. All were amazed at Lomu’s size and definition.

If you were brutally honest, he just grew that way: big and muscular. My father taught Lomu at Arahanga Intermediate in Mangere. If kids wagged, Dad would release Lomu who would hunt the truants down and return them to school. Nobody messed with Jonah.

In his final years at Wesley College, Jonah started making the news. He was a number 8 then and the Wesley forwards were heavier than the All Black pack. After he demolished the opposition at the Condor Sevens schools event, someone had the bright idea of turning Lomu into a wing. Well done, whoever did that.

Lomu immediately made an impact. No-one in rugby had ever been that difficult to tackle. He was fast, agile and quite simply huge.

History says he was fast-tracked into the All Blacks too soon to get a lesson from the 1994 French team, which included the great wing Emile Ntamack. Truth is that failure was the making of Lomu. He was dropped and suddenly had to work his way back into Laurie Mains’s good books. Not easy.

Before the 1995 World Cup, the preferred All Blacks left wing was Marc Ellis. But as the All Blacks assembled in camp with some other hopefuls, including Lomu, the big Tongan started to throw his weight around in training. On the crash pads, he knocked grizzled prop Richard Loe 10 metres backwards. Jamie Joseph also went flying. Legend has it that Zinzan Brooke, the alpha male of the group, went over Mains and said: “Coach, we gotta take him to Africa.”

Rowing 012

Rowing 012

Mains still wanted Jonah to improve his fitness, in particular that pesky 3km time (always the toughest test for the big men), and after struggling his way to a faster time he was selected for the World Cup squad. He was 20 years old.

What happened in South Africa was the stuff of legend. Game after game, Lomu did amazing things, running further and further, producing highlights that just got better and more outrageous. The semifinal against England will always remain his opus — four tries, trampling over Mike Catt, cutting Ben Clarke in half, just dominating. Everybody remembers where they were when they watched that game.

He couldn’t produce a match-winning moment in the final but that was OK, Jonah’s place in the pantheon of rugby greats was assured. I was in London and I remember a group of boys playing rugby at the local park yelling out “I’m Jonah Lomu!”.

Lomu deserves to remembered for the generous way he treated fans. After a game, he would sometimes stay out on the field until every autograph was signed. That often became impossible.

Jonah Lomu changed New Zealand sport and on a global level, he gave rugby an identity, an icon.

At his peak, he had big sponsors (McDonald’s named a burger after him, PlayStation devoted an entire game to him) and an interview with Lomu was a rarity. But if you ever got an audience with the great man, you were struck by how fun-loving and enthusiastic he was. He knew he was living the dream and he appreciated it.

I always felt sorry for Lomu living his private life in public. His tears on Holmes as he was quizzed about family dramas left me feeling uneasy, but I guess people could see how human and vulnerable he was. Even big, tough legends cry.

We knew so much about him – his relationships, his break-ups, his car stereos, his houses, his health. He was our Michael Jordan.

Today I tweeted that Lomu was the greatest athlete in sport with the least amount of training and coaching. By that I mean he was a total natural. Yes he still worked hard to be great, but nobody has ever become that dominant that easily, that quickly.

At least Lomu could say he used his physical gifts to the fullest, that he loved and lost, and loved again. He was a good man, gone too soon. Thanks for the memories Jonah, and what indelible memories they are.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.