Obituary: Jonah Tali Lomu, rugby player

'Gentle giant' who 63 caps with the All Blacks and had a huge impact on rugby. Picture: Ian Rutherford
'Gentle giant' who 63 caps with the All Blacks and had a huge impact on rugby. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Born: 12 May, in Pukekohe, Auckland, New Zealand. Died: 18 November, 2015, in Auckland, age 40.

It is not true to say that Jonah Lomu was the first giant of a man to play rugby union. Indeed, before he exploded onto the global scene in the mid-1990s there were plenty of players who were 6ft 5ins (1.96m) and weighed over 18 stones (114 kg). It’s just that his equally huge predecessors played in the forwards, and very few of them were wingers who could run the 100m in 10.7 seconds.

That he changed the sport is undeniable. The oft-repeated story that Rupert Murdoch decided to buy into rugby, thereby making professionalism inevitable, after seeing Lomu’s potential as a star is not true, but it shows how much people consider that the 63-times capped All Black was a game changer.

By fortunate timing, Lomu became world famous at the time when rugby union was turning professional, and he led the way in profiting from the exploitation of his image as a destructive titan on the pitch and a gentle giant off it.

The sport was already seeing larger and larger men play in both the forwards and backs, with the emphasis switching to fitness and physicality. Lomu merely accelerated the process, and he made it essential that players have the muscle and brawn to cope with men of his stature.

Unluckily for Scotland, Lomu came to prominence in the late 1990s, and helped to end Scottish hopes in the 1995 and 1999 World Cup at the quarter-final stage. In all he would go on to score seven tries in six matches between Scotland and the All Blacks, including a hat-trick in the 69-20 win in Dunedin in 2000, still Scotland’s record defeat by New Zealand. Yet his untimely death has brought great sadness to Scottish rugby folk who recognise what a legend he was in the sport.

Had he not found his way to rugby, Lomu’s life might have been entirely different. Born into a family of Tongan heritage, Jonah was the first child of a mechanic, Semisi Lomu and his wife Hepi.

Lomu was farmed out to an aunt in Tonga when his brother John arrived but after six years there, his parents brought him back to Auckland where his lack of English saw him become a shy and withdrawn boy – he was to remain so even after becoming a star. Lomu admitted he could have gone off the rails with the gangs of south Auckland, especially after his uncle was brutally murdered in a gang fight.

He was in trouble with the police in his early teens, and was thrown out of the family home. By then, however, he was a star rugby player for his school Wesley College, where he came under the influence of deputy head teacher Chris Grinter, who alerted the local counties coach Welshman Phil Kingsley Jones, who also recognised his potential.

At that time, Lomu was playing in the pack, usually as a No. 8, and it was at that position that he captained the school’s First XV. Kingsley Jones in particular showed Lomu the necessity for self-discipline and training to make the most of his prodigious talents.

He was behind Lomu’s ascent to national honours, starting with his selection for New Zealand Schoolboys. It was a summer playing sevens against older players that changed his life. The sheer speed of the 17-year-old Lomu made him a star at the abbreviated version of the game, and the New Zealand coaching staff began to take a serious interest in the youngster, who they encouraged to switch to the left wing where his speed and devastating hand-off – two assets that he never lost – could be put to better use.

He made his debut for the All Blacks against France at the age of 19 years and 45 days, making him the youngest-ever player to don the famous black jersey with its silver fern.

He was not an immediate success, however, and All Blacks coach Laurie Mains dropped him after the second test against France, both matches having been lost to a brilliant French side.

Shattered by his backward step, rugby league beckoned, and Lomu seriously considered trying his luck in then professional code with Canterbury Bulldogs. Kingsley Jones persuaded him to try again for the All Blacks, for the following year was the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.

Though South Africa famously won the cup on home soil, it was Lomu’s tournament, especially when he ran over the top of England full-back Mike Catt to score a try, the like of which most people had never seen on a rugby pitch.

It was one of four tries in that semi-final, and though he might have worded it better, England captain Will Carling hailed Lomu “a freak.”

Within months rugby union turned professional and Lomu was in great demand both for his playing services and for advertising purposes. It apparently made him the first New Zealand sportsman to become a millionaire while still playing.

In 1996 he became ill and was diagnosed with necrotic syndrome, which attacks the kidneys. He was able to play on and starred for New Zealand again in the 1999 World Cup, this time scoring eight tries – his record of 15 in World Cups was only equalled last month by South Africa’s Bryan Habana, but he took three tournaments against Lomu’s two.

His kidney condition began to seriously hamper Lomu, who underwent a transplant operation in 2004.

He had a short-lived comeback, playing for Cardiff Blues, but eventually had to give up playing in 2006 after breaking his ankle in a match against the now defunct Scottish Borders team.

A genuinely gentle giant, Lomu was the most recognisable figure in the game, and recently looked to be in reasonable health, despite being on dialysis when he made several most welcome appearances at this year’s World Cup.

That makes his death from a heart attack at the age of just 40 all the more difficult to bear.

Lomu was married three times. He wed South African Tanya Rutter in 1996, and they divorced in 2000. He married Fiona Taylor, who became his manager, in 2003, but their marriage broke up within five years.

Jonah Lomu is survived by his third wife, Nadene (nee Quirk) and their two sons, Braylee and Dhyreille.