Man mountain at ease in valleys

Tim Glover encounters Jonah Lomu, the quietly formidable All Black who is now stopping traffic in Wales
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The Independent Online
F or the staff at Pontypool Hospital it was a delicate and dangerous operation. Separating Jonah Lomu from a troublesome tooth requires a cool head and nerves of steel. "It took an extra four injections but it's out now," Lomu said. They did not, after all, need a hammer and chisel to do the job.

It is comforting to learn that the most feared wing threequarter in the history of rugby union is like anybody else, i.e. a craven coward, when it comes to visiting the dentist. The tooth has been hurting him since he was kicked during a game in France but he kept deferring treatment.

Lomu, described by Will Carling as a "freak" after what he and New Zealand did to England in the semi-finals of the World Cup last June, revealed his human side in a visit to the Welsh valleys yesterday. In Blaina High Street he stopped the traffic.

On his first visit to Britain Lomu admitted to a "culture shock and a weather shock". Coming from south Auckland, he should have been completely at home in the South Wales rain and the spartan surroundings of the Blaina Rugby Social Club. Blaina is the home town of Phil Kingsley Jones, Lomu's business adviser and friend, and last night the 20-year-old drove in a courtesy car to Llanelli to play for an International Select XV against a British Isles XV, a testimonial match for the Scarlets and Wales wing, Ieuan Evans. It is testimony to Evans's popularity that two multi-national teams agreed to play but it was the presence of Lomu that lubricated the turnstiles.

The match itself was a lot less painful than drawing teeth. With both sides adopting a run-everything policy the result, not that it mattered, was a victory to Evans's British Isles XV by 68-57. Evans, the most-capped player in the history of Welsh rugby, scored two tries, as did his opposite number, Lomu. What did matter is that a crowd of around 13,000, near capacity, paid record receipts for a match at Stradey Park and Evans's reward (after the payment of expenses) could be as much as pounds 80,000.

Kingsley Jones pointed out that Lomu did not receive a penny for last night's appearance. "Money has never been the bottom line with Jonah," the Welshman said. Nevertheless Lomu is understood to be receiving about pounds 500,000 for playing for the All Blacks for the next four years.

By the time he had scored four tries in the 45-29 demolition of England in that World Cup semi-final, he was wanted by rugby league, American football and Pizza Hut. New Zealand would have flogged off (had they had any) the crown jewels to keep him.

The principal fall guy - he also went on to become Lomu's patsy in the pizza advertisement - in that extraordinary performance in Cape Town was England's right wing, Tony Underwood. Lomu said that he does not like looking into the eyes of an opponent "unless I'm running at them. I don't go out to bash anyone." Underwood, however, was different. Yesterday Lomu revealed that when the All Blacks were performing the haka prior to the kick-off against England, Underwood was winking at him. The manu (red mist in English) descended. "I thought to myself 'I'm going to wipe that wink off his face'," Lomu said. "When someone winks at you it's like laying down a challenge." Kingsley Jones interrupted: "It's like poking a stick at a gorilla."

Since being discovered as a phenomenal schoolboy force in 1993, Lomu is enjoying his first holiday. "I heard all about the singing and the coalmines and thought I'd better come over and have a look." Too late, unfortunately, for the mines, and the Welsh have not had much to sing about either. "Playing rugby is virtually a full-time job," he said. "I love rugby and nobody can take it away from me."

As a former autograph hunter himself, he will happily put pen to paper for his growing army of supporters and he is also learning the commercial game. "The only time I objected," he said, "was when a man shoved a card under my nose as I was sitting in a Pizza Hut. He could have waited until I had finished eating. It's just common courtesy."

Next Sunday Lomu will play for a Wrexham XV against a North-West Select team. It is, of course, at the behest of Kingsley Jones who is coaching director of Wrexham Rugby Club. "The Welsh Rugby Union do nothing for the game in North Wales," Kingsley Jones said, "so I thought I'd do something. The country is not big enough and the Wales team not bloody good enough for the WRU to cut off part of the population."

After that Lomu will attend the wedding in New Zealand of the All Blacks full-back, Glen Osborne. "No," he said, "I'm not the best man, I'm one of the security guards."

And what happened to a part of the great man that was left in the Principality, the famous Lomu molar? Kingsley Jones said he sold it for pounds 4,000. It's probably apocryphal.

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