The long battle with illness has not withered Jonah Lomu, either in size or in spirit, but it has left him with only one remaining ambition. Some might think it bleak. Some might think it merely realistic. Few could deny it carries considerable poignancy.
In millions of minds, Lomu will forever be preserved as the personification of power and might in sport, the human bulldozer who laid waste everything in his path in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England in South Africa, one of the greatest individual performances the game has ever seen.
Lomu grows wistful when he thinks back to those days of his untrammelled strength. ‘My way of thinking when I was running with the ball was that I will use every single option that is available to me but if you leave me with no option, I will run over you,’ he says.
It seemed then that nothing could ever stop him and that he could sprint far away from his troubled childhood in South Auckland and from the rare kidney disorder known as nephrotic syndrome that was already beginning to manifest itself even as he was steamrollering England into submission.
But rugby’s wunderkind is 40 now and he is at bay. A kidney transplant in 2004 fixed him for seven and a half years but his body rejected it in 2011 and he has been a prisoner of dialysis ever since.
Now his ambition for life centres on seeing the sons he thought he could never have grow into men. He has done a deal in his mind that if he sees Brayley, six, and Dhyreille, who will be five this week, reach the age of maturity, if he can get to the age of 55, he will consider himself a lucky man.
‘My goal is to make it to the boys’ 21sts,’ says Lomu. ‘There are no guarantees that will happen, but it’s my focus. It’s a milestone that every parent wants to get to. My dad died young and that makes you think. I want my boys to be healthy and if they get to 21, they should be fit and healthy and live a normal life.’
So Lomu sinks into a sofa in the plush lobby of The Savoy hotel and smiles when he recalls taking the two children he thinks of as his ‘miracles’ on an open-top London double-decker bus last week. He and his wife, Nadene, retreated downstairs out of the wind and the rain. Brayley and Dhyreille insisted on staying upstairs, their hoods pulled tight around their faces, happy to be buffeted by the elements.
Since his new kidney failed in 2011, Lomu has been desperately hoping for the chance of a second transplant. He knows, though, that the reality is that his body is much more likely to reject a second transplant than a first.
He knew the sickness was trying to bring him down but he vowed he would not bow to it. He told himself he would charge straight at it just as he charged at so many of his chastened foes. He would bounce off it. He would flatten it and he would make it over the try line.
‘I hated losing,’ he says. ‘When you hate losing, you find a way to win. The thing I find is that when you are backed into a corner, you can do one of two things: it’s either you accept you are going to lose or you come out swinging.
‘My attitude has always been: “If you beat me, then next time I meet you, I want to beat you and I don’t want to just beat you, I want to absolutely give it to you”. It’s that sort of drive and mentality that gave me the success I had on the pitch. I hated coming second to anybody.’
Lomu’s father used to beat both him and his mother until, as a young teenager, Lomu snapped and fought back. He was banished from home and did not speak to his father again for 17 years. Nadene effected a reconciliation between them before his father died in 2013 and now, despite his own ill-health, Lomu is throwing himself into more and more work to safeguard his children’s futures.
The goal makes it all worth it, though. ‘I want to give my boys a better childhood than I had,’ says Lomu.
Lomu shakes his head, smiling, when he is asked about the kind of excitement he once brought to rugby. As England go into the World Cup beset by doubts about the selections of coach Stuart Lancaster, it is a small consolation that they are unlikely to experience anything like the trauma their predecessors faced in that 1995 semi-final against New Zealand in Cape Town.
Many say Lomu revolutionised the sport that day, that he spawned a new generation of rugby behemoths and super athletes so big and so fit that the earth’s plates move when they collide. It is ironic then that Lomu is sceptical about the way the game has developed.
‘They talk about how the players are bigger and stronger now,’ says Lomu. ‘But it’s actually not what you do in the gym and what you’re lifting that’s important. It’s what’s inside you. It’s what’s in your heart. I look at some players now and they have got some great skills but some of them, they’re not as big as they think they are.’ – (Agencies)