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 for ever 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.
The All Blacks wing scored four tries and established himself as rugby’s first global superstar, a ball-carrying Usain Bolt in an age when the sport was about to explode into the professional era and the pace of change was dizzying.
omu 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.
‘These are new adventures for them,’ says Lomu. ‘Getting them to write about this fantastic new world they have come to is going to be fun.’ He smiles again when he talks about how Nadene has to manage her ‘three boys’, but somewhere amid the great gentleness that is Lomu’s defining characteristic, there are also hints of melancholy and weariness.
Perhaps it is too often expected that sportsmen, especially great sportsmen, should be able to shake off the kind of disease he suffers from as if it were some trifling inconvenience. Maybe it is because it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking of our sporting heroes as superhumans. Maybe it is because they sometimes seem less vulnerable than the rest of us that we assume cure is inevitable. It has not been that way with Lomu.
Last Tuesday, Lomu spent six hours hooked up to a dialysis machine in Bournemouth, where he is staying with family. On Friday, it was the same. Today, it will be the same again. Three times a week, six hours a day, the machine takes blood from his body, cleanses it of the impurities that his diseased kidney cannot and then pumps the blood back in.
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. Physically and mentally, the dialysis is exhausting. Lomu tries to catch up on emails during his six hours of stillness. Or he watches movies. It is a fight not to become dispirited and despairing.
‘You have to try and stay up and be happy and positive about it,’ says Lomu. ‘Because I will tell you one thing: it does get you down at times. It’s difficult. Every dialysis patient is different but we have one commonality: we have no other choice. Your second choice isn’t really a choice. It’s just you giving up.’
There was a time, before his boys were born, when Lomu tried to confront the fight against his disease with the same attitude that he once adopted to his opponents on the rugby field in the mid-Nineties when he was a young man taking his sport by storm.
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.
‘I gave the person the respect that they are due as a rugby player but outside of that, I don’t fear nobody. It’s just the way I attacked life. This disease is a challenge but you either lie down and die or you accept it and carry on. That’s where I have been very fortunate. I have just never been able to accept coming second to anybody or anything, including an illness.’
Now that he has his boys, his motivation for overcoming the disease has changed. He does not think about rugby any more. He thinks about his sons and making sure they are protected from the hardships he suffered during his own traumatic childhood.
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.
He is a rugby ambassador for Heineken during the three months he will be in the UK to coincide with the World Cup.
He will not be drawn into analysis of the chances of New Zealand or England, preferring to emphasise the unpredictablility of major competitions but he is undertaking a series of speaking engagements that is being promoted as The Unstoppables Tour in a string of British cities during the tournament.
The goal makes it all worth it, though. ‘I want to give my boys a better childhood than I had,’ says Lomu. ‘I would not wish my childhood on anybody. When you are forced to fend for yourself from the age of 13 and live on your own from the age of 14, that’s tough.
‘I wouldn’t wish that on them and I would never let that happen. I want them to grow up, not spoiled in any way, but given the opportunities I believe they should have. I want them to understand that nothing comes easy and that you’ve got to work for it. I didn’t better myself to let them go through any hardship like I did.
‘When I look in the mirror, what I see is my two sons. They’re my priority. The two boys were miracles. Medically, it wasn’t supposed to happen because of my kidney stuff. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be a dad.
‘Now, when I wake up in the morning, instead of looking in the mirror and thinking, “What am I going to do today?” I look in the mirror and think, “I’ve got the two boys, now get yourself up and get yourself moving and try to be the best dad you can be”.
‘It is a battle to try to get up every morning as a renal patient. That is one of my biggest struggles. I’m just fortunate that I have the adventure of being a father. That’s what I see when I wake up in the morning, wash my face, look in the mirror and I see my two boys. And for me, that’s excitement.’
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.
It was only the second minute when the All Blacks worked the ball wide to Lomu, who had come into the tournament relatively unheralded. Lomu, who could run the 100m in 10.98sec, brushed aside a challenge by Tony Underwood and accelerated towards the try line.
England captain Will Carling tipped him off balance with a despairing tap tackle but Lomu careered on with only Mike Catt between him and a score. It looked as if he would fall but he ran straight through Catt, leaving him trampled on the ground like Wile E Coyote before diving over for the try.
Lomu went on to score four tries in New Zealand’s crushing 45-29 victory, establishing himself as the sport’s first real superstar and leaving England unsure what they had just run into. ‘I have never felt so powerless, so impotent, on a rugby field,’ future England skipper Martin Johnson wrote later in his autobiography.
Carling labelled Lomu a ‘freak’ and Catt, one of England’s greatest players, is still reminded of his part in the try recently voted the best in World Cup history. ‘There’s going to be a bit of a train smash here,’ Catt remembers thinking as the All Blacks wing bore down on him.
Lomu refuses to glory in the moment. He has seen Catt several times in the intervening years but says he would not think of joking with him about their unequal collision. ‘I try and avoid it,’ says Lomu. ‘I would never bring that up. I’ve got too much respect for the guy.
‘To tell the truth, if Catty had been two or three steps back, I would’ve fallen in front of his feet. He helped me get to the line because he kind of stabilised me. By me hitting him, he balanced me up. He stood me back up. I took two more steps and then I had to leap over the line or else I would have fallen head first.
‘I view that game more as the game when my life changed. Prior to that, I was a kid from South Auckland who just wanted to see how good he was against the best players in the world. But after that game, it was a kid from South Auckland that everybody wanted to know who he was, what he did, how quick does he run the 100m, how big are his shoes, how heavy is he?’
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.’