Shortly before midnight last night, whilst I was listening to the Phil Williams Show on Radio Five Live, the broadcast was interrupted by one of those ‘earth-jolting’ pieces of news that occur from time to time – the announcement of the death of All Black rugby legend Jonah Lomu at the desperately young age of forty.
It was no secret that he had long suffered from an acute kidney condition, had endured a kidney transplant at some point and was apparently still required to undergo regular dialysis. This is important to mention because – amidst the inevitable media outpourings of appreciation of his extraordinary impact upon the world of sport as a rugby player that will soon follow – one needs to ‘register’ that his feats were all the more remarkable given they were achieved despite this debilitating condition which was diagnosed just as he burst upon the world’s consciousness at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
Jonah stood six feet five inches tall and at his zenith weighed in at between 18 and a half and 19 stone. Not only was he uncommonly big, he was uncommonly fast – capable of running under 11 seconds over 100 metres.
I would not try to analyse his rugby career when every rugby pundit currently plying his or her trade will undoubtedly do this better than I could over the next few weeks.
Today I shall just mourn the passing of one of the most mesmerising sporting superstars who ever lived and record here the tale of the only time that I met him. Actually that last one is a bit of an overstatement – I should perhaps have written ‘of the only time I ever spent ten minutes in his company’.
Let me explain.
In 1999 the Rugby World Cup’s host nation was Wales although several matches were also played in England, Scotland, France and Ireland. At the time my husband and I lived in Richmond, Surrey, and belonged to the Cedars health club shared between the Richmond Gate and Richmond Hill Hotels opposite the Star and Garter Home.
I cannot recall the exact month or date, but one afternoon that year whilst the RWC was on I had gone to Cedars for an exercise class, a couple of beauty treatments and then a chill-out in the pool, sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi area.
After about half an hour relaxing, I found myself alone in the sauna when suddenly, without any warning at all, first top All Black winger Dougie Howlett [who much later played with great distinction for Munster in Europe] and then Jonah himself, both dressed in swimming trunks, opened the door and walked in to join me on the wooden benches.
[It later turned out that at the time the All Blacks were staying in a nearby hotel – I could not tell you which one – and they had been given the afternoon off to relax. Some of them had found their way to Cedars, as I subsequently found to my momentary heart-fluttering satisfaction when I was joined in the club’s giant Jacuzzi by another four supremely fit-looking behemoths whom to this day, despite our family’s devotion to rugby, I have never identified.]
Meanwhile, back in the sauna, although I knew exactly who my new companions were [I had followed Jonah’s career avidly since the 1995 RWC], they of course had no idea who I was and therefore acted as if I was a stranger. As indeed, did I. Not a word passed between us. Instead, whilst continuing to pretend that I had no idea of whom they were, I nevertheless strained to dwell upon their every word in search of some gossip or insight into their world or personalities.
Would it disappoint you if I told you that their softly-spoken chat was entirely trivial and unremarkable?
I had never before shared a sauna with two world-class athletes glowing with fitness, health and understated charisma. Howlett was an intense young Adonis with piercing eyes and black bubble-cut hair – had I been twenty years younger and come across him at a night club bar stool it could easily have been a case of “Grab your coat, you’ve pulled” but at the time I was already a respectful lady with two kids, working three days a week in an antiques shop.
Jonah was naturally my focus of attention because he was Jonah Lomu. At the time he was four year beyond his diagnosis of the serious (nephrotic syndrome) kidney disorder and no longer an automatic starter in the All Blacks side.
It is a natural characteristic of Kiwis that they are relatively quiet and modest in demeanour (certainly compared to Australians), but in my sauna Jonah was particularly so, almost to the point of diffidence.
Through my interest in rugby I’ve come across and watched some seriously big athletes in my time and, generally speaking, a man of six feet three or more tends to move in a certain way, by which I mean that a certain slow swagger one imagines is directly connected to their girth and height. Think John Wayne. But Jonah wasn’t like that. He was enormous by any standard – I am five feet seven (okay, perhaps fix feet six in my unadorned feet) but, believe me, in comparison six feet five is vast – but he didn’t carry himself like a big man. To me, he moved more like a man six feet tall … who just happened to be bigger than that.
It goes without saying that my husband and girlfriends on the school run heard about my All Black/Jonah Lomu encounter for years afterwards.
This sad day would not be complete without me taking the opportunity to provide a link to a video of Jonah’s greatest moments, courtesy of YouTube – see here – JONAH LOMU