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.