From the very beginning, it was a fight for Jonah Tali Lomu, the mercurial New Zealand rugby player who died today at the age of 40.
In gritty South Auckland, Lomu lived through a tough childhood, fending off a violent, drunk father, spending nights sleeping on bridges and struggling to stay away from crime. ”I think it made me battle hardened for rugby,” he said in 2013.
Lomu was pushed towards the sport after one of his uncles was murdered in 1988, prompting his family to send the teenager to boarding school. By 1993, in his final year at school, he became the head boy and the captain of the rugby team. A year later, Lomu began his incredible run in international rugby, making his test debut against France aged 19 years and 45 days.
But world rugby would truly feel the force of his massive frame—6 feet 5 inches tall, and 118 kilograms (260 pounds)—in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. At Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium on June 18, Lomu decimated England with his pace and power, ending the game with four tries. “I am hoping not to come across him again,” England’s captain groaned after the game. “He’s a freak—and the sooner he goes away the better.”
Lomu went nowhere, instead scoring 37 tries in his 63 tests, before being forced out of the game with a kidney disorder in 2002. Yet, he had already established his place among the greats of rugby, a phenomenal athlete who also rode the wave of professionalism washing through the sport in the 1990s to become its first millionaire.
There was a glimmer of hope about a return in 2004, after a kidney transplant, but his comeback never really picked up steam. In all, Lomu played 185 first class games with 122 tries to his name.
In his final days, Lomu was still fighting. His kidneys nearly failed on him in 2011, immediately after he starred in the opening ceremony at the Rugby World Cup. He recovered but the struggle continued.
“My goal is to make it to the boys’ 21sts,” Lomu told the Daily Mail in August this year about his two sons, then aged six and five. “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.”
Sadly, it turned out to be a goal too far for even the great Jonah Lomu.