Farewell to a gentle giant
JONAH Tali Lomu who recently died at the age of 40 at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, was the first global superstar of rugby union. A child of Tongan immigrants, his father, Semesi, was a factory worker and his mother, Hepi, a homemaker.
He was sent back to Tonga at the age of one to be brought up by an aunt for six years. On his return, Lomu had a tough childhood in the crime-ridden neighbourhood of Mangere in south Auckland where rival Tongan, Samoan, and Maori gangs clashed in deadly battles.
His domestic situation was also volatile, with his alcoholic father frequently beating his mother, Jonah, and his siblings. After one such incident of his mother being abused, Jonah – aged 15 – threw his dad across the room and was expelled from the family home. He would not speak to his father again for years, reconciling with him only shortly before Semesi’s death in 2012.
It was at the Methodist Wesley College boarding school that Lomu found the stability and structure that allowed his talents to flourish. He excelled in rugby and athletics, and channelled the rage he felt for his father into his rugby. He went on to play for New Zealand at under-17, under-19, and under-21 levels. He worked briefly as a bank-teller, before making a spectacular entry into international rugby with his outstanding performances for New Zealand at the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens, where the Kiwis beat Australia in the final. (Lomu played at club level for the Blues, the Chiefs, and the Hurricanes). Guided by his Welsh manager and father-figure, Phil Kingsley Jones, Lomu went on to become the youngest All Black of all time at the age of 19, a year before the 1995 World Cup in South Africa where he established his legend.
At this world cup, a global audience witnessed the blistering pace and brute strength of the All Blacks’ phenomenon: a colossal 20-year old six foot 5, 262-pound left-winger, with thunderous thighs and huge biceps, who could run the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds, and brushed aside opponents as if they were matchsticks. Never before had the game seen such a devastating combination of bulldozer and gazelle, earning Lomu the nicknames “the freak” and “the dark destroyer”. He revolutionised his position, with teams now regularly employing wingers with both speed and strength. Lomu was named the player of the tournament at the 1995 World Cup. Lomu’s four tries in the semi-final against England in Cape Town is, however, still widely considered to have been the greatest individual performance ever seen in world rugby, as he ran around, at, and through a hapless English defence.
Lomu drew large audiences to the sport and was credited with providing the impetus for the professionalism of rugby union in 1995, particularly impressing Australian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, who invested $555 million in the game through television sponsorship. A playstation would be named after Lomu in 1997, while he was immortalised in wax at Madame Tussauds in London in the same year. During the world cup final in South Africa, Lomu realised how big he had become only after he went to a mall to buy tooth-paste and a large crowd followed him. He would need security to escort him back to his hotel. It was also in South Africa that he generously donated his “ghetto-blaster” to the chambermaid who cleaned his hotel room.
Lomu returned to the Sevens format to win a gold medal for New Zealand at the 1998 Commonwealth games in Malaysia. He would star again in the 1999 world cup, helping the All Blacks to reach the semi-final, where he again scored a memorable try against France, running through about seven players like a knife slicing through bread.
Though the Kiwis eventually lost the game, Lomu ended his two world cups with a record 15 tries (equalled this year by South Africa’s Bryan Habana who needed seven more games to reach this number). Lomu eventually scored 37 tries in 63 internationals, and won the Sevens World Cup for New Zealand in 2001, before hanging up his boots.
By this time, a rare kidney disease – nephrotic syndrome – that he had suffered from throughout his career, had become debilitating. After a kidney transplant from close friend, Grant Kereama, in 2004, failed seven years later, Lomu had to go on six-hourly dialysis three times a week. He remained stoic throughout his ordeal, quietly confident and determined to disprove the diagnosis that he would never play top-level rugby again.
But following several injury-plagued unsuccessful come-backs, Lomu was forced to accept the sad reality of his situation. It was particularly tragic that, at 27, when he should have been at the peak of his powers, Lomu could no longer continue to play at the highest level and would miss the 2003 rugby world cup. It was almost like living through a recurring nightmare in which – as Lomu noted – he tried to get his legs to do what they normally reflexively did, but the speed and strength had somehow disappeared. He dedicated himself to coaching and mentoring young children. He was the patron of Kidney Kids New Zealand and a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ambassador.
Lomu loved fast cars, fast food and reggae music. His family life was somewhat tempestuous and he had a roving eye, marrying three times in his short life. He met his first South African wife, Tanya Rutter, at a braai (barbecue) during the 1995 World Cup. They were married a year later, and stayed together for four years (he had broken off two prior engagements before this marriage). He married Fiona Taylor in 2003 for five years, before a divorce was triggered by Lomu’s affair with Nadene Quirk who had been married to another rugby player, Jarek Goebel, for only 10 months.
Lomu married Quirk in 2011, and finally appeared to have settled down, having two sons, Brayley and Dhyreille, with her. (He had earlier been told by doctors that he was very unlikely to have children due to his illness.) Lomu and his wife joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Coming from a deeply religious Methodist family upbringing, Lomu had once said: “I talk to the Lord often, even before games, I ask Him to protect all the players.” Though ferocious on the pitch, a warm, self-effacing, and sometimes shy Lomu remained a gentle giant off it.
Dr. Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg.