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For Jonah Lomu, one last Haka

Anirudh Menon
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Editor's Pick
812   //    30 Nov 2015, 09:39 IST
The juggernaut that was Jonah Lomu left even his own teammates awe-struck.

Ka mate, Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora!
Ka mate, Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora!

It still hasn’t sunk in.

It’s been twelve days, and it still hasn’t really sunk in. On Wednesday the 18th, he passed away. Over the course of the week, tributes have poured in from all over the globe. Teammates and opponents alike have spoken nothing but words of fondness. They’ve held a number of public and private services in his honour across New Zealand. Today morning, they held the last one. Tomorrow, in a private ceremony, they’ll lay his body to rest.

And yet, it really hasn’t sunk in.

Can Jonah Lomu really be no more?

Yes, we had known about the debilitating illness that had reared its ugly head just after he had burst onto the scene at the ‘95 Rugby World. We had known about the constant struggles with fitness that troubled him throughout his career. We had known about the kidney transplant. We had known about its failure. We had known he was on the waiting list for another one.

Yes, this should have been expected, someday or the other it was bound to happen. We should have seen this coming.

Yet we hadn’t.

That was the strength of the aura that surrounded, nay surrounds, his legend.  

That legend was built up from the first day the world had actually seen him play. He had come into the 1995 World Cup an unknown 20 year old boy –with just two international caps – up against some of the toughest men in world sport. He left it having changed the world of Rugby forever.

Jonah Lomu in full flight. Oh! what a sight that was.

No one had really seen anyone like him before.  There had always been big, strong men in the game. There had always been fast, agile men too. Before Lomu, there had never really been someone who was big, and fast. The kid from Auckland stood six foot five in his socks and carried with him a hundred and twenty kilograms of solid Polynesian muscle. And he could do a 100m spilt in 10.8 seconds.

He could run past you, around you or straight damn through you.

His hand offs were magnificently dismissive, virtually screaming - “sit your ass down, son”. He was insultingly direct – his mind calculated the shortest distance from where he was to the try line, and he got there faster than anyone on the pitch. If those soft-shoe shuffles and surprisingly light feet (watch his videos now –no matter how many times you see, it is still boggles the mind just how nimble he was) didn’t break the ankles of the guy trying to keep up, the sheer momentum that his freight train of a body carried would simply trample the poor blighter over.

The ’95 English back-line found this out the hard way -

(an interesting aside here –  Lomu’s opposite number Tony Underwood had locked eyes with him during the All Black’s haka, and had apparently winked at him - an obvious ploy by the experienced Englishman to let Lomu know  that he didn’t really think too much of him. Lomu hadn’t liked that. Within the fourth minute, Underwood – along with Will Carling, and the truly unfortunate Mike Catt – would come to regret it forever)

As did the entire ’99 French fifteen -

To truly appreciate most of Rugby’s greats you need to understand the finer nuances of the game – to understand what a Richie McCaw, a Dan Carter, a Brian O’Driscoll, a David Campese or a Francois Pienaar brings to the game you need to know what exactly it is that they are doing so well.  To appreciate Lomu, all you needed was a functioning adrenal gland.

Like the greatest athletes in history have all done, he transcended the game. He was awe-inspiring; a talisman to those who supported the teams he played in; a figure spoken about in hushed voices and hasty whispers amongst the opposition. His mere presence quickened the pulse of everyone in the stadium – it drew more and more people towards the sport (I for one will freely admit that I would not have been as fascinated with this wonderful game  were it not for the great man). When he took to the pitch, everyone knew they were about to see something special.

Yet, he never actually has won that hallmark of Rugby greatness – the World Cup. It wasn’t for a want of trying, though. Having rampaged his way through all comers in ‘95, he was finally stopped in the final by Japie Mulder, Joost van der Westhuizen and the ferocious South African pack inspired by their President, 62,000 roaring fans in Ellis Park and the unprecedented support of 40 million of their countrymen. There perhaps has never been a better game to lose in the history of sport.  

This is what it took to stop Jonah Lomu. The Springboks gang-tackle the big man. 

In ’99, Lomu was not at a hundred per cent, and yet, it didn’t stop him from being the best player in the tournament. After having driven the All Blacks into the semi-finals against French, and having virtually single-handedly given Les Bleus the hiding of a lifetime in the first half, Lomu and his countrymen fell victim to arguably the single greatest comeback in World Cup history.

Two astonishing world cups, 15 tries (a record he now shares with Bryan Habana) and yet no trophy. There would never be a third attempt.

However, if there ever was an athlete on the planet who didn’t need a trophy to his name to define his legacy, it was Lomu. His legacy, his greatness, extended much beyond the mere confines of a rugby pitch.

His greatest strength, and the one aspect he should always be remembered for was his will, his mental fortitude. Battling nephrotic syndrome, and the various chronic kidney problems that comes with, there were days when Lomu could hardly take to the training field. Most of his teammates, oblivious to the seriousness of his health issues, had explained it away with lazy stereotyping. As the legendary Andrew Mehrtens put it –“Particularly Polynesian guys, they don’t just want to go running for the sake of it — which is fair enough, but you put a ball in their hands and they’ll run all day. You make them run sprints and they get that adrenaline, that buzz, they need different fitness testing, so there was no lack of respect for Jonah.  

It wasn’t just hard for Lomu, it was nigh impossible for him to maintain the optimum levels of fitness a professional sportsmen needed. At one point, in 2003, he had to undergo dialysis three times a week, and faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Yet, he never gave up. He never quit. He underwent the transplant, then returned to his sport within a year. Just like he always did on the pitch, he kept coming back for more. And he did all of that with that big, genuine smile of his plastered on his face.  

Jonah Lomu. 1975-2015. 


His legacy though? As immortal as those mountains behind him

As stunned as we are, I cannot possibly comprehend what his family is going through – and I will not attempt to intrude upon their time of grieving by trying to explain it here. But, as scant as the prospect seems now, may they find some solace in the fact that Jonah Lomu’s life was, and continues to be, an inspiration for us all; that he will never really die. In our memories, and our prayers, he will live on. 

Jonah Tali Lomu, you, sir, won in life; and for that, we owe you one last haka -

Taringa whakarongo!
Listen carefully!

Kia rite!
Prepare yourself!

Kia Rite!
Prepare yourself!

Kia mau!
Hold fast!

Ringa Ringa pakia!
Slap your hands against your thighs!

Waewae takahia, kia kino nei hoki!
Stamp your feet as hard as you can!

Kia kino nei hoki!
As hard as you can!       

ÄÂÂÂÂÂÂ? Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Will I die? Will I die? Will I live? Will I live?

Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Will I die? Will I die? Will I live? Will I live?

TÄÂÂÂÂÂÂ?nei te tangata pÅ«huruhuru
This is the hairy man

Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine

ÄÂÂÂÂÂÂ?, upane!  ÄÂÂÂÂÂÂ? ka upane!
A step upward, another step upward!

ÄÂÂÂÂÂÂ?, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!
A step upward, another... the Sun shines!

hi!

Rest in peace, big man.

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Anirudh Menon
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Believes Sport makes the world a better place :)
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