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Jona Lomu: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!

Release date: 24th May, 2004
Publisher: Headline

List Price: £18.99
Our Price: £13.29
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4Sportsbooks.co.uk
Exclusive interview with Jonah Lomu
By Peter Sharkey

Immediately prior to meeting Jonah Lomu, the mind begins to ponder on images of sporting greats at their ruthless best. There is Viv Richards in his pomp destroying opposition bowling attacks or Mike Tyson obliterating those foolish enough to step into the ring with him. The indefatigable Sir Steve Redgrave, the outrageously talented Muhammad Ali: each man capable of recognising opposition weakness before driving home his advantage.

One image remains prominent, perhaps because it's more recent or simply because it still feels like the most ruthless of all, a brief, but nevertheless sit-up-and-take-notice event, a seminal moment in rugby history. Rewind your sporting memory to the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the England - New Zealand semi final. In his recently published autobiography, this is Jonah Lomu's version of what happened a few minutes into the game as the ball was quickly released from the back of the All Black scrumÖ

"Ready, Jonah, here it comesÖOh no, the pass is behind me. No, got it. Look out, here's Underwood coming in for the hit. Misses. Spins. Goal line ahead. Not far now. Around the outside of Carling. Damn, he's clipped me. Stumbling. Keep your balance, Jonah. Get your balance. Look up. Mike Catt. Two strides. No option. Shoulder in my vision. Get your knee up, Jonah. Bang. Into him. Over him. Through himÖ"

The Lomus are in town for a book signing due in a few hour's time. Already a queue of some 50 people snakes through the bookshop and past the full length poster of Jonah and his hard, brooding, uncompromising glare. People in rugby shirts, fathers and sons, students and a middle-aged lady with three copies of the book latch onto the existing group as the queue meanders through the American literature section and on towards computing and business. A black jersey-clad New Zealander, rather more rotund than the profile one normally associates with an All Black shirt, has delayed his return home to Wellington by a day in order to secure Jonah's signature.

In the flesh, Jonah Lomu has a ready, easy charm. "How ya' doin' mate?" he asks, proffering a gigantic hand when we meet in a city centre hotel as his wife, Fiona, pours us each a soft drink. The man is not especially tall, but his powerful shoulders are broad enough for him to have operated effectively as a lock forward had he been called upon to do so. His trainers must be at least a size 14. Although he hasn't played rugby for a year, there is little sign of much excess weight.

He laughs when I tell him he has written a fascinating tale as if I were giving him some flannel, but I protest (although not too vehemently) because for such a young man, he has accomplished so much and, tellingly, has much more to achieve.

Given the similarity between his and Tyson's background, I wonder how he secured his escape from Auckland's mean streets? "I think by being able to channel my aggression in a positive sense," he replies. "It would have been easy to go off the rails, yeah, but sport began to play such a big part in my life that it became my life."

Following an early childhood which mixed Pacific island bliss with unhappiness and physical abuse in equal measure, Lomu had a fair share of aggression to shed. He fell in with a tough street gang and was regularly involved in petty crimes that bordered on the violent. On two occasions, he was stabbed during fights with other gangs.

His schooldays proved a turning point. "School was great for me, especially when I was introduced to rugby because it was a good way of releasing excess energy." Mrs Lomu smiles when I suggest he must have had bucketloads of the stuff. "Yeah, school was a place where I could get rid of all that anger, where I could get it under control. Later, when I started playing rugby, I realised I could channel that anger for the good of the team."

Indeed he could. Following early success he won representative honours for New Zealand against England schoolboys. "I always enjoyed playing against the English," he says with a smile. Has that always been the case? "Well, yeah - there's something about them that brings out the beast in me" comments the big man without a hint of irony. I smile back and wonder how it must have felt to be faced with this guy pumped up and raring to go on the rugby pitch.

Invariably, conversation touches on that semi final in 1995. "The All Blacks were really up for that game, y'know" he says, almost conspiratorially, as though they may occasionally have not fancied running out to intimidate their opponents by performing the Haka before ripping them to shreds. "Most of the guys had been part of the New Zealand team that had lost to England at Twickenham in 1993 and they felt wounded. Defeat can be the best form of motivation for a rugby player. The most dangerous thing an opponent can face is a wounded rugby player."

I mention the theory which suggests that Jonah had been at least partly responsible for effecting a change in the style of Northern Hemisphere play. After 1995, our administrators and coaches realised that fitness and aggression as personified by the big man were central to effective, professional rugby and we should thank him for reminding us of that. He'll have none of it and laughs loudly at what he believes is a preposterous notion. "No, mate. The Northern Hemisphere guys have always been really big and they have always played to their strengths. The Australian and New Zealand players tend not to be as large and have had to use a more expansive game - that's been our strength." Somehow, the idea of the All Blacks as a team of small runners wearing the opposition out courtesy of their pace doesn't quite gel, but I'm not about to argue.

Throughout our meeting, it is evident that belief and confidence are two prominent words in the Lomu vocabulary. I ask if this is what separates the great sportsmen from the rest. "I've always been a confident person, especially on the rugby pitch, but as I've got older I have more belief off it too" he replies. "Rugby harnessed that belief for me."

His belief is similarly apparent when enquiries are made of his wait for a kidney transplant which he thinks could take a few years. "I just have to stay positive, because that's the way I am and besides, what's the alternative?" he asks. In keeping with others in his position, he is amazingly well up on the minutest detail of his medical condition and offers a fascinating account of how his dialysis treatment nearly left him paralysed. "I hadn't been having the treatment for too long when a problem occurred. There were proteins in my blood that weren't being properly cleaned out and were eating at the myelin sheaths around the nerves in my legs. Eventually, the nerve fibres became hypersensitive when they were exposed, which is a pretty dangerous situation, but it is reversible." The uneven scars on what he calls his 'dialysis arm' are raked across the side of his colossal forearm.

Given his condition, how does he cope with the contrast between being one of the planet's most recognisable sportsmen and his situation today, determined as it is by serious illness? It's something, he says, which he just has to contend with, but feels that rugby has taught him how. "A professional sportsman has to channel his anger and aggression for the good of the team. If he does it properly, his team will benefit, if he doesn't, he won't. The same is true of my kidney condition. Sure, I think deep down I was angry when I discovered what was making me lethargic, but if remain focused on beating this, I know I will."

Future plans include "taking it easy for a while." One senses that promoting the book, signing autographs, appearing on television and speaking to journalists all over the country does exhaust him. He glances towards his wife: "I think when all of this is done" he says, pointing towards the piles of books to be signed, "we'll take a long break back home and get this other thing sorted." No plans for volume two then, I inquire. Mr and Mrs Lomu laugh heartily in unison.

Jonah Lomu's description of "this other thing" remind me of another sportsman who has had to face serious illness but who remained determined to beat it. Before leaving, I tell him he should read cyclist Lance Armstrong's autobiography, briefly outlining its uplifting nature. You would think I had revealed the meaning of life as Jonah's eyes light up: "Yeah, I've heard of it. Let's get it, sounds great. Thanks. Thanks a lot." Illness has ensured that the ruthless Jonah has been shelved for the time being, but the positive one remains in good form, thank goodness.

Jonah Lomu The Autobiography is published by Headline
4Sportsbooks.co.uk price: £13.29 (rrp £18.99)


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