Rugby friends pay tribute to All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu

Jonah Lomu playing for the All Blacks. Photo: Getty.

The situation looked grim for the Waikato Chiefs, and their coach was about to give them a blast at half-time.

It was April 10, 1999, round seven of the Super 12 rugby season and the Chiefs were trailing the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.

Mike Collins was captain of the visiting side and remembers how the team’s star winger turned around their fortunes.

“We didn’t have a great record in Canberra and I guess we were under the pump. The Brumbies were very clinical, had a great game plan and were just all over us.

“Going in at half-time the coach [Ross Cooper] gave us a bit of a rark-up.”

Collins remembers Jonah Lomu, in his first and only season with the Chiefs, visibly upset at the situation.

“I think he was more upset than the coach, not at the boys, but just because we were losing.

“He went out in the second half, set up a few tries, and was just unbelievable on the field. We ended up beating the Brumbies and I believe it was the first time we defeated them at [their] home. A lot of that was off the back of what Jonah did in the second half.”

The Chiefs clawed back a 16-13 win over the Brumbies. The team for that particular game included Bruce Reihana, Walter Little, Glen Jackson to name a few with Matthew Cooper and Roger Randle on the bench. It was their first win of the season and turned around their fortunes, winning the next four of their remaining five games.

Collins said he first met Lomu when they played together in the North Island under 16s team in 1990. Lomu played lock back then but when he joined the Chiefs nine years later he was “probably at the height of his powers” on the wing.

“I guess Jonah coming into the [Chiefs] team, the memory is one of excitment. I remember he was a very generous person off the field. He used to organise a lot of activities for the boys, like riding around in his big four-wheel drive, playing music.

“I remember once in South Africa he organised for a few of the players to go to a police gun range where we were able to shoot all sorts of automatic weapons. He liked to organise things that were a bit out of the ordinary, things we wouldn’t normally have access to.”

Collins said Lomu’s work ethic at training was “fantastic”.

“I guess there were two sides to Jonah when it came to training. When it came to the long, aerobic stuff, like the 3km run test, the big fella really struggled with those. But we all had to do that and Jonah was no different. He would start it and get the job done.

“When it came to the short work, like over 100 metres, or power exercises, Jonah was unbelievable.

“When you break that down, that was his game. It was all about power, when he got the ball he would burst into play.”

Lomu played eight games for the Chiefs during the 1999 Super Rugby season. Back then there were only 12 teams in the competition so notching up eight games “was pretty good”, Collins said. It was also an important year for the All Blacks as the team headed away to England to compete in the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

Collins is from New Plymouth but came to Hamilton to study at the University of Waikato. He played all of his senior rugby in the Waikato, and was a stalwart of Super rugby for the Chiefs, playing prop for the team from 1997 to 2005. He moved back to Taranaki and for the past couple of years has worked as chief executive for Taranaki Rugby Football Union.

Although it had been some time since he spoke to Lomu, Collins said news of his sudden death on November 18 came as a shock.

“It was like losing Jerry Collins and Norm Berryman, all of the iconic players of our generation and Jonah would be at the top of that list. He was a massive part of rugby not just here in New Zealand but around the world.

“You just feel very sad because he’s got a young family and still had a lot to offer the world. I just feel for his wife and children, it must be devastating for them.”

Collins liked the idea of holding a memorial service for Lomu at Eden Park and he hoped to be able to attend on Monday.

Jonah Lomu. Photo: Getty.

Hard man to tackle

Roger Randle remembers the excitement that came with Jonah Lomu’s move from the Blues to the Chiefs for the 1999 Super 12 Rugby season.

Randle and Bruce Reihana were the Chiefs’ wingers at the time and were stoked at that prospect of playing with Lomu rather than against him.

But it didn’t take long for them to feel a little uneasy when it sunk in that they would have to actually mark-up against the big man on the training paddock.

“It actually ended up a lot worse than we thought it would, because opposed to tackling him once a year when we played him… on a weekly basis we had to tackle Jonah,” Randle said.

“Normally he’d be in a good mood and there was a gentlemen’s agreement and he’d take it easy on us. But if he got told off by the coach normally it meant that Bruce and I had to warm our shoulders up pretty good because we knew Jonah would come steaming down at us.”

Just three years earlier Randle was in a rock, paper, scissors match with team-mate Tana Umaga in order to try and avoid marking Lomu when the Blues and Hurricanes met in the first ever professional rugby match.

“I won, I chose left wing,” Randle said. “I still had to mark Joeli Vidiri. And Tana marked Jonah. He had a pretty tough day, and I think even Christian Cullen got rolled a few times as well.”

And that start of the professional era was very much brought on by Lomu’s exploits, Randle recalled.

“We all know Jonah as that blockbusting wing and he pretty much changed the game. After his play during the World Cup in ’95, he was a big catalyst in the way it went professional in towards that next year, into the Super Rugby. He just had such a massive impact on world rugby, and he was the first global superstar.”

It was in 1994 when Randle first came across Lomu – in the New Zealand sevens team, in Sir Gordon Tietjens’ first year as coach. He remembers just trying to trail behind the big man in the hope of an offload.

But Randle remembers Lomu as much for his off-field impact. He said the gentle giant was so humble that he didn’t realise the impact he had on people. Just a couple of weeks ago, Randle’s 13-year-old daughter was tickled pink when Lomu commented on one of her photos. Her schoolmates heard all about it.

“With life we all go in different directions and family takes us in different areas, but he’d always find time to say happy birthday,” Randle said.

“He always had time for a little child or a baby for a photo, and your 60, 70, 80-year-old fan as well, he would have time for them. He never thought he was better than anybody else. Fantastic traits.”

Jonah Lomu. Photo: Getty.

New kid on the block

Veteran Counties-Manukau loose forward Errol Brain thought his rugby career was about to be cut short when a rookie player by the name of Jonah Lomu showed up to training.

Lomu was just 18-years-old in 1994 when he was injected into the team by coach Ross Cooper.

“The coach told me that he had this young guy that he wanted to take a punt on.

“I was captain and number eight of the team but the funny thing was that I asked [Cooper] where Jonah played and he said ‘number eight’.

“So I thought, here we go, what’s all this about? But then Ross said he had a plan for Jonah and I thought they would play him at lock or number 6 because he was such a big guy.

“But then at training they played him on the wing. That was good because otherwise it would have cut my career short by about 100 games.”

Brain played 148 games for Counties-Manukau from 1988 to 1997. It included four seasons with Lomu, from 1994-1997. Lomu continued on with the team playing his last season there in 1999 before moving to Wellington.

“When Jonah came into the team he was very humble but he was also very stubborn, especially when you had an idea and he’d push his point of view across. But when a decision was made collectively, he was very much behind the game plan all the way.

“He was very young in terms of his rugby knowledge but on the field he just had this ability to beat players, going around them or over them, and score tries.”

Over the past week video footage of Lomu’s rugby highlights have appeared on social media, mostly of his efforts in the black jersey or for Super rugby teams.

But Brain said he still has vivid memories of Lomu’s attacking ability at NPC level.

“He scored the kind of tries for Counties that I have never seen any other player score. One that stands out strongly for me was when we played Auckland in 1997. He scored from a standing start in our own 22. He was able to beat players at ease. We won that game, not because of that try, but it was typical of the way he could do something spectacular out of nothing.”

Brain also played Super rugby for the Blues (1996) and the Chiefs (1997-98) and was in the New Zealand Maori team in the late 1990s. He lives in Tauranga now but was very much part of the Pukekohe community when he played rugby in the NPC.

Lomu’s efforts for Counties-Manukau sparked further interest for All Blacks coach Laurie Mains as the big winger quickly became a major drawcard for home games in Pukekohe.”He generated a big fan base because of the way he played. People really connected with that. And I agree that he was rugby’s first global superstar, for sure.”

Brain said Lomu never let go of a chance to return to Counties-Manukau when he wasn’t on All Blacks duties.

“All Blacks back then played a lot more NPC than they do now. He played well for us every time and it was good for him to come back into the team because we played a lot of running rugby and there were plenty of opportunities for him to run with the ball.

“He also enjoyed playing rugby with a group of players like Joeli Vidiri, George Leaupepe and Tony Marsh. Jonah must have played over 40 games for Counties.”

News of Lomu’s death hit some of the above mentioned players hard, as well as Brain and his family.

“My wife came into the office and told me. I must admit I shed a tear. I got on the phone and called some of the guys we used to play with together and on Saturday (November 21) we all went up to spend a few hours with Jonah and his wife Nadene, and their boys.

“It’s a very hard time. Jonah was only 40 and had so much more to give and it’s cruel the way things have gone.”

Brain said he last spoke with Lomu just prior to the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“We caught up at a function and he just seemed to be the typical Jonah, in a positive mood, looking forward to the World Cup and the possibility of the All Blacks winning.”

Brain and some of the other former Counties-Manukau players from the Lomu era of the 1990s planned to attend the public memorial at Eden Park in Auckland on Monday.

It’ll be a time to reflect on what Lomu had achieved in his 40 years and how New Zealand can build on the work he’d done for rugby and his many charities.

“Most of us have very strong memories of Jonah and it’s important we hang on to those and remember them. He was bigger than the game and everyone must understand that he was just a kid from South Auckland who came from a rough upbringing but had a talent and used it to its potential.

“If there was ever a role model for kids to look up to, it’s Jonah. He’s showed that no matter where you come from, if you work hard and focus, you will achieve goals. Jonah reached his goals.”

Jonah Lomu. Photo: Getty Images.

Debut in the black jersey

Long-time All Blacks team-mate Frank Bunce was there for Lomu’s debut – against France in Christchurch in 1994.

Having previously played in the forwards, it was a big ask for Lomu to line up, and be expected to perform, against one of the world’s best wingers in Emile Ntamack.

Bunce recalled that it didn’t go well, but that Lomu always had the potential.

“You could see straight away that he was something special – powerful, fast, real natural athletic ability.

“And the very next year when he fronted up at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa the rest is history. He took the rugby world by storm and just continued, he got better and better and better. And we never knew, even then, that he was affected by his kidney issues.

“There was no-one like Jonah before that, and there’ll be no-one like him again.”

Bunce noted that while Lomu didn’t hold records for tries or matches played, it was the “style” that he did it in which stood him above the rest, and that his highlights reel was just far superior to anyone else’s.

“His tries were exciting. There were like five, 10 people left in his wake while he ran 60 metres, and he just looked great doing it.

“He was just great to be around, great to have on your team. And I’m glad he was on our team, I’d much rather be with him than against him.”

Jonah Lomu. Photo: David Rogers/ Getty.

Humble superstar

Another to share the park with Lomu on his debut is Matthew Cooper. He labels himself “fortunate” to have played alongside the great man, and the duo shared the ignominy of being told their services weren’t required after the second test against the French in Auckland.

Cooper said Lomu could genuinely be described as a “humble superstar”.

“He was a person who, post his rugby career, always gave back. And to me, it’s the mark of a true champion.

“I think one thing I’ll miss is his passion and his love and that beautiful smile. That continued. And the key thing is that he never changed. No matter what success brought to him, never a hint of ego or arrogance, just a person who was consistent. And most of all, he had time. And to have time for everybody, in his position as a global superstar suggests that we’ve lost a true champion.”

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

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