Modern rugby's most famous son, presents CNN's Rugby Sevens Worldwide
New Zealand international was a giant of rugby union during the 1990s and early 2000s
Kiwi continues to suffer with a kidney disorder and is seeking a second transplant
"Rugby gives gives you belief that you can get through anything," 38-year-old says
Many have matched his size, some his speed, but no-one ever combined the two to such devastating effect on a rugby field as Jonah Lomu.
The former All Blacks winger became the sport’s first global superstar when he burst onto the international scene at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and now, almost two decades on, his appeal shows no sign of slowing down.
In his capacity as ambassador for the recent HSBC Sevens World Series tournament in Wellington, Lomu was given a hero’s welcome at the New Zealand capital’s Westpac Stadium.
It’s a reception he’s got used to wherever he goes, but the cries are particularly heartfelt at a ground where he represented both the provincial side Wellington and the Hurricanes in Super 12 from 2000-2003.
“The greatest thing I love about sevens is the camaraderie that the players have among all the nations. But at the same time the fans make what sevens is all about,” Lomu tells CNN’s Rugby Sevens Worldwide show.
“It’s exactly how the game should be played – fair play but at the same time speed, skill, pace: everything that needs to be done,” he adds.
“You see it in the crowd as well – they need a bit of stamina (too) because it’s two days of partying hard. There’s a lot of celebrating going on but it’s absolutely beautiful to be a player on the pitch or a former player in the stands watching your favorite team.”
Lomu-graphy: Life and times of a rugby giant
- DOB: May 12, 1975
- POB: Auckland, New Zealand
- Height: 6 ft, 5 inches (1.96 m)
- Weight: 260 lbs (18½ stone)
- Fastest 100 m: 10.8 seconds
- International debut: 1994 (vs. France)
- International caps: 63
- International tries: 37
Lomu’s international career began at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994 before gaining his first full cap against France later that year to become the youngest player (19 years, 45 days) to wear the prestigious All Blacks jersey since the start of that century.
“When I chucked on my All Black shirt, for me, it was like armor, getting ready to go into battle,” he says. “When you get the opportunity to pull it on it is absolutely something special.”
The following year his enormous frame – 1.96 meters (6 foot 5 inches) tall, weighing 260 pounds (117 kg) – made a global impact at the World Cup in South Africa.
Lomu famously trampled all over England’s pride (and Mike Catt’s body) in the semifinals, running in four tries – inducing insult then praise from Will Carling after the game.
“He’s a freak and the sooner he goes away the better,” the shell-shocked England captain said following his team’s 45-29 defeat.
“He’s very balanced, has that incredible power and anyone coming on to the ball like he did is almost impossible to stop. He’s an amazing athlete.”
Rugby’s current fastest player, American Carlin Isles, who reportedly runs the 100 meters in 10.13 seconds, says speeding down the wing feels like flying. But from Lomu – who has a best of 10.80 seconds over the same distance – comes a more earthy assessment.
“I don’t know what other people are thinking of when they’re running down the sidelines, but all I think about is there is one destination that I need to get to and that’s the try line,” Lomu says.
“Whoever or whatever is in front of me, I either go around it or over it, or if not create something for my teammates.”
From 1994-2002, Lomu ran in a total of 37 tries in 63 appearances for New Zealand in an international career interrupted and eventually prematurely curtailed by a life-threatening kidney condition.
The 38-year-old has suffered from nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disorder, since 1995. He nearly died in 2011 when a transplanted organ received in 2004 started to fail.
“My bloodstream was septic and the doctors were starting to think the worst: that my kidney had failed and my body was in total meltdown,” Lomu, who on the waiting list for a new transplant, revealed last year.
He has been able to deal with his health problems by drawing on his experiences on the rugby field.
“The reason why I think I can cope with my medical condition (is because of) the things that I’ve learned through rugby – the desires and beliefs that I was given through playing the game,” Lomu says.
“It’s helped me get through all the adversity that I’ve gone through and at the same time prepared me for life. That’s the one thing that rugby has – it gives you opportunities but at the same time gives you the belief that you can get through anything.”
Lomu still requires regular dialysis but isn’t one to complain, preferring to focus on the positives.
“Medically, I’m as good as I can be. Traveling around the world is always difficult because of the medical treatment that I need, but I’ve got a great wife (Nadene) who organizes it all. The family that I have gives me the will to get up in the morning … especially my two boys (Brayley and Dhyreille) – that’s always a reason to get up.”
Another incentive has been promoting sevens in Wellington and around the world as the the abbreviated version of rugby union gears up for its Olympic debut at Rio in 2016.
“When you’re talking about the changing dimensions of the game, sevens is where it’s at,” he says.
“The nations that couldn’t match the bigger nations at the 15-man game, they can definitely do this and get in there and compete with the best nations … or even knock them over, as the Kenyan team has shown us.”
Kenya – a relative rugby backwater – shocked the rugby world by beating New Zealand in the semifinals at last year’s Wellington Sevens.
This time around, the east Africans didn’t fair so well, but still managed a notable win over Scotland, the sport’s inventors back in 1883, in the final of the Bowl competition last month.
“The biggest thing for sevens is making sure it grows in the way it should grow and people keep enjoying it,” Lomu says.
“But the beauty is that it can only get better.
“When you’ve got 142 countries playing the game, that’s awesome to see. And this is the next level.”