Jonah Lomu: Rugby giant ‘gave his beat-boxes to cleaners’

Story highlights

All Blacks legend died in 2015, aged 40

Was awaiting second kidney transplant

First starred at 1994 Hong Kong Sevens

Remembered by former coach and teammate

CNN  — 

A human wrecking ball smashing swathes through the opposition – that’s how most people remember All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu.

The sight of the New Zealand rugby star swatting aside England players in the semifinal of the 1995 World Cup is for many the defining image of the gentle giant, who died in November, aged 40.

But Lomu made his international mark the previous year in the seven-a-side version of the game, which was quite possibly his spiritual home.

Then 18, his rampaging performance in the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens, with an unprecedented display of pace and power, set the tone for a career that many say changed the sport.

Had he been still alive today, you sense there is nothing Lomu would have liked better than to sit around the New Zealand dressing room at this weekend’s Wellington Sevens, chatting with the boys, sharing stories and wishing them luck.

Instead, a video tribute to the fallen star will be played on big screens during the tournament, where he was an ambassador after his career ended.

“He loved the atmosphere and the family feel about the game of sevens,” former NZ Sevens captain Karl Te Nana told CNN.

“He was just one of the lads, regardless of where he was in the 15-a-side game.

“We didn’t care about Jonah the superstar. We treated him like any of the boys. We took the mickey out of him, he took it out of you.”

Lomu’s rise to sporting stardom began on the tough streets of south Auckland. He was born in Pukekohe but raised for six years with an aunt in Tonga, before returning to New Zealand and a life surrounded by violence.

His father Semisi was a heavy drinker and would regularly beat his son, Lomu revealed in his 2004 autobiography “Jonah My Story.”

The young Lomu was involved in gangs and known to police, but after his uncle was hacked to death in 1988, the boy’s mother Hepi sought a more nurturing environment and sent him to Wesley College, an Auckland boarding school with a reputation for discipline and values.

The imposing youth – 6 feet 5 inches and 19 stone (120 kg) in his prime – excelled at athletics, clocking 10.8 seconds for the 100 meters before finding his niche on the rugby field, first as a loose forward before switching to the wing.

Te Nana remembers facing Lomu as a schoolboy when their school teams met in an annual fixture.

“We heard at the time their first XV forward pack was heavier than the All Blacks, and we heard a fourth-former had made the side – and that was Jonah,” Te Nana recalls.

“His reputation preceded him before he even hit us. There was always a buzz about him.

“He was a lot more physically advanced than the rest of us. A guy who could run that fast and be that big way back then was something special. We had never seen it before, and when he started to do it on a rugby field he was pretty much unstoppable.”

Lomu (left) with Te Nana after winning the 2001 Sevens World Cup

They went on to become friends and NZ Sevens teammates, despite Lomu effectively ending Te Nana’s own All Blacks dream.

“We made our first NZ secondary school team when we played England in Dunedin in 1993 – he was playing No. 8 and I was playing on the wing,” he says.

“Some genius decided to put him on the wing and made me unemployed.

“It is always tough to give up your spot, but when you’ve got a guy who can do the things he could, you don’t mind so much. We made other teams later on together and always had a laugh about it.”

Te Nana says they were “unaware” of Lomu’s troubled upbringing and remembers his frequent roommate on tour as “such a giving bloke.”

Lomu’s generosity, however, may have contributed to his dire financial situation, prompting the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association to set up a legacy trust to help provide for his young sons Brayley and Dhyreille.

“He loved his music and it would be nothing to him at the end of a stay to give his beat-boxes away to the cleaners or give gear away to people after training,” Te Nana says.

“He would even kit out a whole team. That’s the sort of bloke he was. He had come from a humble background and knew a lot of his mates didn’t have a lot of things. He didn’t go looking for recognition but he liked doing that and was in a position to do it.”

New Zealand’s long-time sevens coach Gordon Tietjens spotted Lomu’s potential at an event in Palmerston North and took him to Hong Kong in 1994, where the legend was born.

“What I always remember was how explosive he was and how quick he was for such a young guy,” Tietjens says. “The power he possessed was quite unbelievable and he made a huge impact in the game of sevens. Teams just struggled to tackle him.”

The following year Lomu received his first full New Zealand cap – becoming the youngest All Black at 19 years and 45 days in a match against a touring France side.

Heu went on to win 63 caps, scoring 37 tries, between 1995 and 2002.

But in late 1995, having suffered defeat in the World Cup final in South Africa, his potential was limited by the diagnosis of a kidney disorder. It required regular dialysis and a transplant in 2004.

Lomu’s body rejected the new kidney in 2011 and he was waiting for a second transplant when he died of a suspected blood clot on the lung following a long-haul flight home from the UK after working at last year’s Rugby World Cup.

“We didn’t find out about it until down the line but it made a lot of sense once you heard – he was never the best at fitness tests,” Te Nana says.

“You can only imagine how truly good he could have been if he didn’t have that handbrake.”

With careful management of his illness, and pacing his appearances, Lomu won a Commonwealth Games sevens gold with New Zealand in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 before adding the 2001 World Cup Sevens crown in Argentina.

Lomu was again the catalyst, spurred on by the loss of mentor and captain Eric Rush, who suffered a broken leg in a double tackle with Te Nana.

Rush was forced to fly home from South America for an operation, prompting Lomu to lead an inspirational farewell “haka” Tietjens says he “will never forget.”

But Te Nana believes it was the disappearance of Lomu’s jersey which inspired his match-winning final performance against Australia.

The New Zealand team shared a changing room with Russia, which was playing in the prior plate consolation final.

“Jonah liked to put his jersey on a hanger and see it there before we went out to warm up,” says Te Nana, who took over the captaincy from Rush.

“But when we came back in, the jersey had gone. One of Russian fellas must have seen Jonah’s jersey, pinched it and done a runner. The big fella had a bit of a hissy fit and started punching the walls. I said, ‘Look, we’ve got another jersey, don’t worry,’ but it was the one he wanted to give to Rushie.

“I took one look at him and said to the boys, ‘Just give the ball to the big fella, he’ll do the rest.’ He ended up running two 90-meter tries in the first half and that’s what lit the fire for us. He was the sort of guy who really ran on emotion. To this day if I ever meet the Russian bloke who took his jersey I’d shake his hand and say, ‘thanks, you won us the World Cup.’”

Despite everything he achieved in the game, it was Lomu’s humble nature that stood out for many.

“The big quality he possessed was it was never about Jonah, it was always about the team. He oozed that quality of humility,” Tietjens says.

“As recently as 12 months ago he would come in and sit with the guys in the changing room and wish them all the best, like he had never ever left.”

Te Nana adds: “Not once did he ever act like he was holier than thou or bigger than the game. That’s probably the reason why he was so adored.”

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