Remembering Jonah Lomu

It is 18 months since Jonah Lomu died. Alison Kervin remembers a wonderful, magical person.


It was 1995 and Jonah Lomu was the biggest rugby star in the world. The tales about him were legendary. There was the story about the fax that had arrived in the New Zealand Rugby Union the night before the final.

'Come on, gents,' it urged. 'If you're going to win this World Cup you have to remember one thing - rugby is a team sport. Make sure ALL of you pass to Jonah.'

But Lomu himself had said nothing. Everyone wanted an interview with him. I'd just started at Rugby World magazine and was as desperate as everyone else to sit down and talk to rugby's new superstar, so persuaded the editor to send me to Australia, where he was playing in a Bledisloe Cup match.

'He won't talk to you,' everyone warned, but I wanted to interview him more than I feared rejection, and I was young enough not to be put off by the word 'no', so I headed Down Under and went to watch him train. I saw how he put down his headphones in the same place at the side of the pitch after every break, and took to loitering by them and handing them to him when he finished his session. 'Here you are,' I'd say. 'I'm still desperate to get an interview with you.' But I was getting nowhere. He'd smile and acknowledge me, but then walk away, back to the changing room. I tried talking to his friends and teammates, I tried to convince his coaches and the manager. The photographer and I had practically taken up residence in the team hotel by this stage. I'm surprised they didn't start charging us. But it was no good. Nothing worked.

Then, one morning, we were loitering the in the reception area, wondering how on earth we were going to get this interview, when word came through - Jonah would talk to me. It was to be his first big interview since the World Cup. 'He'll be here in five minutes,' we were told.

I remember him walking through the reception area on that sun-dappled morning as clearly as if it were yesterday. Open-mouthed rugby fans stepping out of his way as he thundered along, the silence that swept over the room, and that tingling feeling you get from time to time when you're about to meet someone really special.

Then there was Jonah in the middle of it all - his black bandana pulled tightly around his head, the number 11 shaved into his eyebrow. The big, black headphones hanging loosely around his neck. He looked terrifying.

'Jonah, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me,' I said. And he smiled. Then he laughed.

'Man, I had no choice - you were stalking me out there. If I didn't talk to you, you might turn up at my house. Wanna get an ice-cream?'

'Sure. Yes. Of course.'

We spent the day with him - taking pictures on the beach and in the hotel, and talking to him about his life and his rugby. He was warm, friendly, kind and thoughtful. I managed to convince him that I wasn't a terrifying stalker and he told me how he loved loud music and ice-creams and he showed us the comic books he adored. 

He talked about how he wanted to be a superhero like the cartoon characters colourfully sketched across the pages in front of him. He said that several times. It seems odd now. Odd that he never realised how much he was exactly like those superheros.

It was a fantastic interview. It ran in Rugby World magazine and was syndicated to 38 papers around the world. I take no credit for its success... it was all because of Jonah.

I didn't interview him again for a year after that first time. Then I called him to do a phone interview. I introduced myself and told him that I was now the editor of Rugby World magazine.

'I know who you are. You're the girl from the beach. We ate ice cream. You stalked me until I did an interview.'

'How the hell do you remember that?'

He explained that he has a phenomenal memory and can recall everything. 'Your photographer was called Dave,' he said. He was right. He said his incredible recall was something that had saved him when he was a young kid. He remembered the bad guys, he could recall looks and comments and never forgot things. He knew who to avoid. It kept him alive.

Lomu famously brushes off the tackle of Rob Andrew, almost as easily as he trampled the Houses of Parliament at Legoland in a later interview

Later that year at Rugby World magazine we had a great idea to take Jonah to Legoland where we would have him looming over the buildings so that he looked like he was about to trash London - King Kong style. We'd shoot it from the ground up and make it look as realistic as possible. 'Jonah's in London: be afraid!' We thought it would be great; it worked better than any of us could have hoped.

'It's a wrap,' said the photographer, pleased with the array of photographs he'd got.

'Great,' said Jonah, standing up straight and stepping back right onto the Houses of Parliament. There was a crunch, Jonah's famous eyebrows raised a little and we looked at each other. A second later we were on our hands and knees trying to repair it. The only thing stopping me from concentrating properly was Jonah's huge shoulders shaking uncontrollably as he giggled hysterically. 'Man, I broke the government,' he kept saying. 'Can you believe I broke the government.'

Jonah tried bodybuilding at one stage, and I rang him to talk to him about it. He sounded like he was in a cave. 'I'm in the shower,' he explained. 'Trying to get the hair to go down the plughole.' He'd shaved his body in advance of his first competition and almost brought the plumbing in Auckland to a standstill.

Obviously, there were meetings with him when he was desperately ill and frail. Times when he looked like a shadow of the man I'd met back in 1995. But then he'd seem to bounce back and look so much better the next time we met.

I saw him for the last time during the rugby World Cup where he talked with such incredible love and devotion about his children and how much they meant and how they'd changed his life. They wanted to move to England because they liked it so much here. He remained as fascinated as ever about the reaction he got in England. Everyone adored him and I don't think he quite understood why. 

As we talked, a small kid ran up and almost crashed into him. Lomu took a step back and tripped a little. 'You be careful,' I said. 'The last time you did that you almost broke the government.' He roared with laughter, covering his mouth with his hand as he nodded and rocked at the memory. Then he kissed me on the cheek and left, smiling as he went.

Goodnight, Jonah. You were every superhero in every comic. You will be missed.



Alison Kervin collects her OBE


Alison Kervin collects her OBE.

Alison is off to the Palace tomorrow morning (19th April) to collect her OBE. Here she reminisces about her time in sports journalism...


No good news ever comes in a brown envelope; everyone knows that. But, in mid-November 2016, a thick, official-looking envelope landed on my doormat informing me that I was to be made an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours list.

It is a tremendous honour to be nominated for services to sports journalism and I've found myself thinking back through my career, remembering everyone who helped me along the way, those whose doubts spurred me on and those whose encouragement kept me going.

There have been so many highs during my 25 years in journalism that it's difficult to remember them all ... watching England win the 2003 World Cup in Australia is up there, as is being in the velodrome to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny win gold at the Rio Olympics. 

  • I interviewed Usain Bolt when he was young and ambitious and he promised me that he would change sprinting forever. I went to interview Nick Faldo and we ended up peering through a telescope in his back bedroom in order to catch a glimpse of Elton John, who lived in the house opposite.

Then there was the time I spent an hour in the ladies' toilets in Monte Carlo talking to Catherine Zeta-Jones about Welsh rugby, and befriended Sean Connery's bodyguard in order to get on to the course to get an interview with the Hollywood star about his love of golf. I'm not sure that any other career offers the sheer diversity of experiences that sports journalism does.

I started my career in local newspapers, learning my trade by covering garden fetes and school fairs on the Hastings Observer before moving to the Slough Observer to write about sport. After that I went to work for the Rugby Football Union for a few years as a development officer. I took the RFU role because I wanted to be taken seriously as a rugby journalist.

These were different times when it was much more difficult for women to succeed in sport, not necessarily because of any overt sexism, but simply because there were so few women working in sport — and none working in rugby.   

People assumed you couldn't do it. Most didn't understand why you wanted to do it. One of the great joys of my time as a sports writer is how much it has changed. There are still far too few female sports journalists, but attitudes have changed enormously and it's getting better.

My time at the RFU culminated in me refereeing at Twickenham in the opening ceremony of the 1991 World Cup. It made me the first woman to referee at the national stadium, and it was a terrifying thing to do, but I'm glad I did it. 

In 1995, I swapped tracksuit for typewriter and moved back into journalism and became features editor of Rugby World, the world's biggest-selling rugby magazine. Rugby was turning professional, suddenly the sport transformed before our eyes. It was the most fascinating time to be involved.

I moved into national newspapers after Rugby World — first as rugby editor, then chief sports features writer of the Times. One of my main roles was a weekly interview series. It was great fun ... Jonny Wilkinson made me lunch (chicken salad), I went shoe shopping with Maurice Greene, who was the fastest man in the world at the time, and I travelled to South Africa to interview Oscar Pistorius shortly before his arrest for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

I even did the last interview with Brian Clough, a few weeks before his death. He was sitting at a table with five people when I walked in. It transpired that two of them had been standing at a bus stop when Clough drove past and he'd offered them a lift. Then he asked whether they fancied coming to the interview with him. They agreed, but the lady was so bored that she knitted all the way through.

The only time I've been genuinely tongue-tied was when I interviewed Nadia Comaneci, my childhood heroine. As I stood before her I was sent spinning back into my youth, as an eager gymnast watching her score the perfect 10. 

Our heroes' names are woven into the fabric of our lives. You know where you were for Botham's Ashes, Maradona's 'hand of God' goal and Seb Coe's Olympic gold in Moscow, like most people know where they were when Elvis died.

I left newspapers 10 years ago to write books, mainly about sport but also five novels. I wrote 12 books in total and began writing regular sports features for a range of publications, including Financial Times magazine.

One of the pieces I wrote featured Felix Baumgartner, the man who sky-dived through the sound barrier. I was at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain interviewing him when the phone rang and Geordie Greig, the editor of The Mail on Sunday, offered me the job of sports editor.

It was too great to turn down. It's a newspaper with a big circulation, a strong reputation and some of the best journalists in the country. I started at the paper a few months later and we all decided early on that we wanted to be campaigning and investigative, to delve a little deeper into sport.

We found there were real problems with rugby union's attitude to concussion. Backed by neurosurgeons and neuropathologists and later by MPs, we campaigned for greater awareness of the long-term damage that could be caused by concussion and for new protocols that would keep players safe.  

The campaign was led by our rugby correspondent, Sam Peters, backed by all of the staff and has become a real jewel in our crown. We're immensely proud of any role we have played in changing the sport's attitude to concussion, and if just one player is kept free of brain injury as a result of all our work, every second of it will have been worthwhile.

It is a terrible cliche to say that it is not just me who has won this honour, but everyone who gave me the opportunity, everyone who backed me. It is certainly for the whole team at The Mail on Sunday who work so hard to produce the sport supplement every week.

I hope you enjoy the section. We know we cannot please everyone, but we try to be balanced and strike the right note between being entertaining and informative, and always try to investigate everything thoroughly.

We hope to do even better in 2017.





Olympic champion and London 2012 chief

Congratulations! Alison's work on behalf of women in sport has helped break the gender barrier for women on the field of play and in administration. So well deserved.


World Cup-winning coach

I've known Alison for over 20 years. She was one of the first women to write about rugby, which at the time was truly groundbreaking. I have always held her in the highest regard because she has never shied away from controversy or been afraid to speak her mind and became a role model for women working in a historically male-dominated environment.


TV presenter

I'm thrilled Alison's achievement in being the first female sports editor of a national newspaper has been recognised and hope it encourages many more women into sports journalism.


BBC presenter

Alison is a trailblazer in the sports industry. Not only is she a fantastic journalist and writer, she has pushed the boundaries in becoming one of very few female sports editors in the world.


Paralympic champion

It's really important that women are recognised through the honours system. And in sport there are still not enough women who are represented through big parts of the industry, whether as agents or journalists or working in governing bodies.


England cricketer

I'm delighted. What a fantastic accolade. Alison knows the job inside out and back-to-front and it's a pleasure to work for her.


West Ham vice-chairman

Alison, you should be so proud. I'm thrilled. Sports and journalism are very difficult areas for women to achieve success in — and to champion both is amazing. Bravo.


On Safari

HOLIDAYS are wonderful things: delicious breaks from the mundane, reminders that outside the artificial barriers we erect around our lives, there are other people, other places, other things that are more endlessly fascinating than anything we could imagine.

And then there are safaris. Really, they’re the Rolls Royce of the holiday world. More richly rewarding, energising, heart-warming and heart-breaking than any other holiday on earth.

I went on my first safari a couple of weeks ago, flying to Cape Town with my friend Charlie, before we met up with Pete and the three of us tackled a three hour journey down to Sanbona – a beautiful 130,000-acre wildlife reserve at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains. It sits in the heart of the Karoo region, rich with vast plains, rivers, lakes and a huge array of animals.

In many ways, all safari holidays are exactly the same in structure: you get up early and go out to spot as many animals as possible before coming back to relax for a while, then go out to look for more in the late afternoon. After that you enjoy sundowners and a magnificent sunset before a lavish dinner.

But here’s the rub: the reality is that every safari you go on is completely different. Every time you go out you see something new and hear something you haven’t heard before – honking hippos, roaring lions or singing birds. You are moved in a different way with every trip. Safaris are living, breathing holidays that create their own drama as they unfold. They’re an unwritten script, an unfinished symphony – a blank page on which your own individual story unfolds every day. Every time you head out you have no idea what awaits you. That’s why they’re so magical and unique.

The day we drove down to Sanbona it was 40*C, creating rather a hot, sticky journey, but it was easy to forget about the heat as we passed through the most glorious countryside… we watched baboons playing in the trees and birds dancing through the cloudless skies. When we arrived at Sanbona, the tensions of the flight and the heat of the journey melted into calmness and serenity. The beauty of the place is breath-taking.

It hadn’t rained for weeks when we arrived, and the animals and plant life were struggling. The difference between rain and no rain in the UK may amount to little more than the difference between taking an umbrella and leaving it behind. Here it’s a serious business, a matter of life and death. When there is no rain, the plants die so the herbivores can’t eat, they grow weak and become easy prey so the predators thrive. The very balance of nature shifts a little on its axis with a turn in the weather.

But as we drove down that afternoon we saw flashes of lightning in the sky ahead of us, growing brighter and more intense as we approached the reserve. By the time we had dinner in the evening the wildest light show played out in the darkness, then thunder’s heavy drum beat joined the cacophony, and the rain came…a little at first, then tumbling down to the delight of everyone.

The rain mean that the next morning the animals were all out to play. We were extraordinarily lucky. Our guide, Pascale, warned us straight away that we couldn’t guarantee seeing any animals…this wasn’t a safari park, these animals were wild. We had no idea what awaited us.

“I’d just love to see some giraffes and elephants,” I said plaintively. Within minutes, as if ushered onto stage by an almighty director, giraffes moved ahead of us, gliding with such gracefulness through the trees. There’s something so other-worldly about giraffes. I fear I may have squealed a little when we saw them.

Next came the elephants.

“You’re good!” I told Pascale, as a herd of elephants trooped past us. Our guide was an expert on elephants, she’s studying their behaviour for a masters degree, so was able to tell us how intelligent they are, how kind, sensitive and emotional. Then she jumped out and excitedly collected their droppings, displaying them for us to see. “Look,” she said, as if showing us a diamond ring. “Isn’t it lovely?” The droppings carry information about what they’ve been eating that is useful for her research.

We saw so many animals that morning, it’s hard to recount them all…a young tawny male lion trying to bring down an eland, failing miserably and having to wander away with his tail between his legs. And a white lion – they are beautiful beasts - white of fur and with the pale blue-green eyes of a film star. Our sighting was stretched out under the sun, his handsome face framed with great mane of white fluff, his protruding belly testament to a good feed. A couple of feet away from him, under the trees, out of the sun, lay the remains of a baby giraffe that he had killed that morning.

We saw rhinos and walked up close to a magnificent cheetah, composed and relaxed in the late afternoon sun, we had a boat trip out to see the hippos and we saw rhinos and buffalos aplenty, but the safari experience is so much more than the big beasts. It’s the plants and the birds. My God – the birds are spectacular - from secretary birds which take off like aeroplanes, with a giant run up, spreading their wings and swooping into the sky; to the huge fish eagles and the staggeringly pretty smaller birds in jewel-like colours, singing beautifully through the warmth and silence in this lovely part of the world.

Away from the animals, the accommodation at Sanbona is elegant and roomy. There are three lodges. We stayed in Gondwana Lodge which has 12 suites, and has been created for families. There’s also Dwyka Tented Lodge which sits in a dry riverbed. It has nine 'tents' (though the word 'tent' doesn't do them justice - they each have a private plunge pool). But the jewel in the crown, for my tastes, is Tilney Manor a lovely, elegant house with the prettiest gardens featuring bushes and plants teeming with small flowers in the most exhuberant reds and pinks. It’s delightful. A riot of colours and smells.

The food and wine is delicious: a mixture of barbecues and more formal, sit down dinners, everything we ate was lovely. After dinner, we looked at the stars – so clear at night, pointed out by our guides as they explained their positions and told the stories of their names. Every guide we met was knowledgeable, well-versed and adept at sharing their knowledge and bringing the captivating world to life for us, it made the experience so much more magical.

The lovely thing about Sanbona, other than it provides the world’s best holiday experience, is that it doubles as an extraordinary conservation project. The place was turned into a reserve 15 years ago with the plan to undo the damage wrought by intense farming and reintroduce wildlife. To, effectively, turn back the ecological clock. It’s working. The land is recovering well and the animals have settled and roam plentifully through the reserve.

As well as the trips out to see the animals, Sanbona offers nature walks, trips to see the local rock art, fossils and plants. There’s something for everyone, you can’t fail to be impressed.

Indeed, the only thing wrong with the experience is that you ever have to leave. Heading back to work is difficult when a part of your heart is still out there, under the African sun, watching the birds dance in the sky, and waiting for the big beasts to arrive. It’s hard to imagine a better, more relaxing and stimulating holiday.

For more information, see: WWW.SANBONA.COM

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