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Remembering Jonah Lomu: a tribute

Former All Black Saveatama Eroni Clarke remembers Jonah Lomu in this heart-felt tribute to the gentle giant.  

Long before Jonah Lomu became a household name and held the hopes and dreams of a nation at more than one Rugby World Cup, he was involved in school rugby.  I remember the first time I saw him. He was playing in the Condor Sevens tournament; a national competition for secondary schools, representing his beloved Wesley College.  

At that point he was already a teenager standing 6’5”, weighing 115kgs and he could run 100 metres in 11 seconds. It was already apparent that he was no ordinary athlete. I sat there watching him dominate not only the game – but the tournament – averaging three to four tries per game. As a sportsman myself, already deeply involved in rugby at a representative level, I knew in that moment that it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” he would wear the Black jersey.

I had the pleasure of playing together with Jonah in the inaugural year of Super Rugby. This was the birth of professional rugby.  We began playing for the Auckland Blues. Seeing him on television is one thing, but standing next to him was a whole another matter!  I was dwarfed!  He was also ripped. There was no fat on that boy. 

Like many of us Polynesian boys, he struggled with the 3km time trials and the dreaded beep test…  coincidently the ‘96 Blues team tested as the most unfit of all the NZ franchise teams. In fact, the All Black’s coach met with the Blues and gave us all a piece of his mind, and then made us run the test again.  But there was an air of quiet confidence, resolve and belief about the team. Why? We had Jonah!  We won the inaugural Super Rugby competition that year.  

Jonah’s All Blacks career probably didn’t start the way he imagined or hope it would. It would be of those games he would probably want to forget. Remembering it now, the whole occasion seemed to be overwhelming. It didn’t help that we were playing against a rampant French team. However, like all good sportspeople he learned a lot from that game. And he grew from the experience; he never made that mistake again.

A year later at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa the world was re-introduced to the unstoppable force, and certainly England’s Mike Catt felt it! Bursting onto the scene at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Jonah Lomu’s name became synonymous with World Cups.

Every four years, in the build up to the major sporting event there are questions about who the number one team in the world is and which individual will shine. There are many great players but one name is spoken of more times, and with more excitement than any other – Jonah Lomu. 

Jonah was outstanding on the field and absolutely dominated in the 11 jersey. Playing for the Blues, Counties and, of course, the All Blacks were amongst his great loves; but he also loved people. All peoples. He was a caring and gentle person. He understood exactly what it is like to struggle in life and wanted to help and support people worse off than him through their struggles. This was most notable with young children and families in poverty and combatting illnesses. 

However, it wasn’t long after that the world learnt of Jonah’s own battles. He had been struggling with an illness for quite a while. This would eventually contribute to his significantly premature death. The illness was unknown to the public – and to his team mates. Jonah was known the world over for his strength, speed and physicality, often referred to as the gentle giant, he seemed infallible. It was a huge surprise to the rugby brothers when we learned that he needed a season off for testing and treatment.   

Jonah was also a fantastic role model when it came to coming back from adversity. After a season off he returned again, with even more determination and power. His courage inspired many and instilled fear into the opposition. After rising to face down so many challenges, and touching us all with his success within and outside of rugby, it is very hard to see him fall for the final time. 

There are so many stories of families touched by Jonah’s generosity, his love and genuine care. The man I knew would give the very shirt off his back for someone in need. There are many stories of families of seriously ill children who Jonah visited. He would surprise those families by returning and visiting when their loved ones had passed way. He went to show his compassion and ‘ofa.   

Even the rich and famous were touched by his personality and character – from the late Robin Williams to Morgan Freeman, to Richard Branson, and even Her Majesty the Queen. He was a great ambassador for New Zealand, for Tongans and for rugby.  Many countries are now playing rugby because of this man. The game will feature at the next Olympics because of his influence.

The day Jonah passed away, like the rest of the world, I was in shock. I went to the house and met up with former Auckland and All Black players Ofisa Tonu’u, Dylan Mika and Michael Jones. There lay Jonah, looking like he was sleeping. We sat with him, unsure of what to say, almost waiting for him to awaken. We prayed and cried. We sang a hymn. We reminisced. We were completely heartbroken.  

Jonah, JL, you were the greatest of us all. The world may never see the likes of Jonah Lomu again. Your name will be forever remembered by the All Blacks as one of the greatest of us all. The world will continue to hear your name every four years at each successive Rugby World Cup, and in between too.  

We pray for strength and comfort for your wife Nadene and your sons Brayley and Dhyreille. We will never forget. Ia manuia lou malaga Jonah. ‘Ofa atu

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