Scottish rugby welcomes back Lomu

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WERE he to shuffle on to the Netherdale pitch in the manner in which he struggled on stage in Christchurch last year to receive a special merit award, you could say Jonah Lomu was a walking miracle.

The fact that he will instead canter on to the grass in Galashiels in the colours of Cardiff tomorrow, and aim to charge through 80 minutes of Celtic League rugby against the Borders, is proof positive that the New Zealander of Tongan extraction is an exceptional human being.

He was not a normal rugby player when he burst on to the world stage as a 19-year-old in 1994 and scored four tries in demolishing England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final. But the astonishing fact that he was nowhere near 100 per cent fit, and was eventually hospitalised in 2003 with the clock ticking on his life due to a serious kidney disease, turns the legend of Lomu into a filmmaker's dream.

Yet Rhys Williams, his current skipper at Cardiff, insisted yesterday that his team-mate remains a grounded human being. "The greatest thing about him," said Williams, "is that he is just your average rugby player - he trains hard, likes a laugh, goes out for meals with all the boys and will talk with everyone for ages, from academy boys to internationals, from our loyal supporters to the man in the street in Cardiff. He is a legend, but a pretty down-to-earth one."

It is the superhuman exploits which persuaded Cardiff to sign Lomu for six months during New Zealand's domestic off-season, and increase their ground capacity by 2,000. It is the extraordinarily explosive impact he has had on the game and his Herculean bid to return to top-flight rugby that will see Netherdale groan under its biggest attendance of the season as people travel from near and far to see the man in the flesh tomorrow.

Steve Bates, the Borders coach, admitted that for all that his team are striving to keep their focus on all 15 Cardiff players, Lomu's presence has stirred emotions.

He said: "We haven't made any specific preparations regarding Jonah, though we will try to close down his space, but even though I haven't heard his name much, I do sense there is a real anticipation, an excitement in the camp, and I think that's probably a lot to do with his presence.

"Whether he reaches the heights he reached before I don't know. I think a lot of people have probably caught up with Jonah in terms of his size and I don't think he will be as destructive as he was in his heyday when he was flying and was so far ahead of everyone else. He will probably find the Celtic League a bit different to what he's used to as well, but we're certainly looking forward to him coming."

Who directly faces Lomu at Netherdale remains unclear as Simon Danielli has struggled this week with a calf injury and a decision on whether he, or Stuart Moffat, starts against the All Black will be left until today. Gregor Townsend is also doubtful, having suffered a hip injury near the end of the win over Glasgow.

But it seems trifling to talk of niggling calves or hip bruises when Lomu is around, considering what he has had to deal with in the last two years. The 6ft 5in, 19st winger may still be some way short of peak fitness, and may never attain the goal he craves - a return to the All Black jersey - but to fully appreciate the journey Lomu has taken to reach this point, his fifth competitive game since returning from a kidney transplant, one has to reflect on the wreck he was nearly two years ago.

His battle with nephrotic syndrome, a disease where protein leaks dangerously into the urine, and one Lomu shares with around 10,000 people in the UK, now appears to have been with him from his teens. It began to cause him pain and slow him down, from a rate of 10.8 seconds for 100 metres, before the disease was diagnosed in 1996. He had to take time out of the game in 1997 and his first marriage collapsed, but with the help of treatment and drugs he came back and scored eight tries at the 1999 World Cup.

There is no known cure for nephrotic syndrome and as he struggled with the ever-increasing demands of professional rugby, the condition took hold in 2003.

Lomu recalls: "The darkest moment was when I fell over for the first time. I had no clue why it happened. By the time of the 2003 World Cup, I needed my wife to help me walk. I would take three steps and fall over, or I could walk for 10 minutes and then just fall over out of the blue. I was basically numb from the knees down. My walk wasn't a walk, it was more of a shuffle."

He was forced to undergo dialysis treatment, for up to eight hours a day at one point, and then suffered a severe neuropathy from the knees down which forced him into a wheelchair.

A transplant was the only option available and, after a delay during which his body swelled to over 20 stone, his hips widened beyond his usual 49 inches and his health declined further, he underwent an operation in July 2004 to receive a kidney donated by Grant Kereama, a Wellington broadcaster, and one of several friends who volunteered to have their kidneys assessed. It gave him a new life, though he is aware that the syndrome can return, even for transplant patients.

Despite this, he was determined to play rugby again. Two basketball players, Sean Elliott and Alonzo Mourning, returned to the NBA in the USA after kidney transplants, but playing top-class rugby is something no patient has attempted. In a revolutionary procedure, his new kidney has been tucked up behind his rib cage for extra protection.

His return came on 10 December last year, for Cardiff in Italy, and Lomu has played three games since, scoring his first try in a 41-23 win over Newport Gwent Dragons and suffering his first loss, to Llanelli, on Monday night. Now the Borders await and one former Reiver is delighted he is back.

Cammie Murray played against the New Zealander in the 1999 World Cup quarter-final, on tour in 2000 and the following year, when Lomu scored four tries for the Barbarians in a devastating destruction of Scotland at Murrayfield.

Murray said: "You learn to cope with people being very quick or very big in international rugby, but Jonah was both and his sheer size made it so difficult to get a hold of him. Having watched him on TV, I remember it was only when he came alongside me in the tunnel in 1999 that I realised how huge he was. It was scary.

"But I have good memories from the first time I played him in 1999. He scored, but I came back and dummied him to score in the second half. We were lucky it was a wet day and we put Jonah under pressure by kicking in behind him and rushing up quickly in threes and fours. We also got our defence pretty much spot-on and it was disappointing to lose.

"Jonah was the first global superstar to come out of rugby and I think took the game into a new era, so it's great to see him back. He was the first of the big wingers and there are a lot around now, especially in New Zealand, and defences are also stronger now, so he'll find it tough but I wouldn't bet against Jonah reaching the top again."

Lomu's return has already helped benefit Cardiff Blues and a wider audience. He has lent his support to the UK Transplant's 10th anniversary campaign to recruit an additional million people to the NHS Organ Donor Register (ODR), has visited numerous kidney transplant patients and is helping raise funds for world-leading research into nephrotic syndrome at a Bristol hospital.

He admitted that people advised him to forget about rugby, accept the IRB's offer of a new role as world ambassador, perhaps move into films - he was offered a role in a James Bond movie - and savour what he had achieved in the game. But he said: "I didn't want to be sitting around in a few years feeling I had a chance to have another crack at it and I didn't take it. I want no ifs, no buts, no nothing. If you make it you make it, if you don't you don't.

"I was fortunate to have a close friend donate a kidney to me, which was successfully transplanted, and I feel it's given me a second chance. And when I returned to training I felt like a child at Christmas - it was great to smell the liniment, feel the ground and get these legs racing again.

"I have had really great support from people who have shown faith and trust in me. My [second] wife, Fiona, has been a constant source of support through some tough times, and Cardiff Blues have shown huge trust and faith in me by letting me play rugby again."

Whether or not he returns to the international stage, Lomu will clearly remain rugby's most inspirational character for some time to come.

Borders (v Cardiff at Netherdale, tomorrow, 4pm): C MacRae; S Danielli, B MacDougall, C Hore, N Walker; G Townsend, C Cusiter; P Thomson (capt) , R Ford, B Douglas, S Macleod, O Palepoi, K Brown, S Sititi, A Miller. Subs (from): A Rennick, M Parr, T McGee, S Scott, C Stewart, J Dalziel, B McKerchar, S Moffat, G Law.

Cardiff: C Morgan; C Czekaj, M Stcherbina, T Davies, J Lomu; N Macleod, R Powell; J Yapp, D Goodfield, B Evans, D Jones, J Goode, M Molitika, K Schubert, R Sowden-Taylor (capt). Subs: R Thomas, M Jones, C Quinnell, M Lewis, W Evans, L Thomas, R Warren/D Dewdney.

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