OBITUARY: Jonah Lomu, who transcended rugby like no other player

Photo: Getty Images.

Jonah Lomu transcended the sport of rugby union like no other player.

The on-field deeds of Lomu, who died on Wednesday morning, captured the imagination of fans in all corners of the world during a 63-test career for the All Blacks.

Latterly off-field aspects of his private life and his ongoing battle with kidney disease made for a fascinating human story which meant his name was never far from the news in New Zealand and overseas.

Standing 1.96m tall, weighing up to 120kg during parts of his career and clocked at under 11 seconds for the 100m, his fame wound up matching his outrageous physical gifts.

Lomu became the first New Zealand sportsman to become a multi-millionaire while remaining based in this 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, the sixth most of any All Black.

He was released on unsuspecting opponents at the 1995 World Cup, scoring seven tries in spectacular fashion. His four in the semifinal against England – including one where he famously bulldozed fullback Mike Catt – are an abiding memory for many.

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 suffered abuse at the hands of his father Semisi and became involved in violent, street-kid activity at a young age, regularly caught up in minor altercations and incidents of theft.

A key moment in his life came when mother Hepi enrolled him at Wesley College, where Lomu learned about discipline and discovered his athletic frame was well-suited to sport.

Photo: Getty Images.

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.

He was noticed at the highest level via a televised national sevens tournament and just over a year later in 1994 became the youngest ever All Black, against France aged 19 years, 45 days.

However, he failed to adjust to the positional requirements and didn’t represent his country again until the 1995 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, All Blacks coach Laurie Mains having despaired of getting him up to sufficient fitness levels. He had failed miserably to meet the high standards imposed at a punishing training camp early in the year.

Only after Lomu had been returned to sevens rugby where he came under the influence of fitness fanatic coach Gordon Tietjens did Mains and his selection colleagues decide to revise their plans.

In 1996 came the first sign of his health problems. Those plus 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, scoring a magnificent match-winner against England in the pool match at Twickenham.

Lomu also scored two tries in the semifinal 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 up until 2002, even though form fluctuations returned and there were many periods when other talented outside backs like Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga and Doug Howlett looked more dangerous.

Photo: Getty Images.

Clearly battling for pace and confidence, Lomu dropped out in the early stages of the 2003 Super 12 and soon afterwards 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 that returning to top rugby was unrealistic.

He began undergoing kidney dialysis treatment in 2003, which affected his mobility because of the impact it had on nerves in his lower legs. Twelve months later he announced he needed a kidney transplant.

Considering his long battle with such a severe health handicap, it is remarkable that he achieved so much in his career. It explained why his form fluctuated so much throughout a glittering career.

In 2003 at the International Rugby Players Association’s awards ceremony Lomu became just the third player to receive a Special Merit Award. He received standing ovations in shuffling public appearances at the World Cup in Sydney and as a guest speaker at the 2004 Halberg Awards.

Lomu finished with 185 first-class games in which he scored 122 tries. He had 73 games in all for the All Blacks.

He is survived by his wife, Nadene, and their young sons Brayley and Dhyreille.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz. Read the original here.

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