Return of a giant who refuses to be beaten

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There is a black-and-white photograph on the wall of a clubhouse in Pukekohe on the north island of New Zealand, from which the face of a teenaged Jonah Lomu stares out, proud and defiant. The caption of the Counties-Manukau Colts' line-up shows his first name as "John" but the world got to know Jonah soon enough. If Lomu in his 31st year achieves his ambition of playing rugby again after a kidney transplant, his already remarkable tale is bound to break barriers far beyond the game.

There is a black-and-white photograph on the wall of a clubhouse in Pukekohe on the north island of New Zealand, from which the face of a teenaged Jonah Lomu stares out, proud and defiant. The caption of the Counties-Manukau Colts' line-up shows his first name as "John" but the world got to know Jonah soon enough. If Lomu in his 31st year achieves his ambition of playing rugby again after a kidney transplant, his already remarkable tale is bound to break barriers far beyond the game.

"The great word is 'hope'," said John Kirwan, a big, strong, try-scoring wing for the All Blacks before Lomu redefined the parameters. "Jonah's got a mission and a goal and regardless of what happens, he's a winner. The thing that appeals to me most is that it transcends sport. He will give millions of kidney disease sufferers hope; a kid in the Philippines may hear about this and be inspired. You can't put a price on that."

Kirwan was in London as backs coach to Lomu's star-studded pick-up team for last night's Martin Johnson testimonial match at Twickenham. Not a single man asked to play alongside Lomu turned him down, whether they were team-mates who used to profit from his shattering breaks or former opponents still mentally nursing the bruises.

Lomu made one successful comeback after he was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome shortly before the 1995 World Cup. But the disease caught up with him more effectively than any chasing defender and he went on to dialysis in 2003 and - on 27 July 2004 - received a new kidney from a Wellington radio broadcaster, Grant Kereama.

"It was the day I started life all over again," said Lomu. "If I hadn't any doubts or fear I wouldn't be doing it. 2005 is my year of feeling my way back into the game."

Some say it is a year of living dangerously. The Kidney Foundation in New Zealand discourages transplantees from engaging in contact sport. "They were absolutely stupid," said Lomu, with a familiar jut of the jaw above a frame that is trim and relatively well toned after his recent stints in the gym. "They did not know what I knew, about where the kidney was going to be put and how it would work."

Last night Lomu pulled on a rugby jersey for the first time since he touched the ball three times in a 40-minute appearance for Wellington in a pre-season friendly in August 2003. The symptoms of renal failure were taking hold and, at its worst, he could barely put one foot in front of the other. Coincidentally it was at Twickenham in November 2002 that he ran in the last two of his 37 Test tries. It was at HQ, too, that in December 1996 Lomu appeared for the New Zealand Barbarians immediately before his first hiatus of nine months spent treating his disease with steroids which ballooned him several stones overweight. It transpired that the Lomu of 1995, who scored four times against England in a World Cup semi-final at Newlands in Cape Town, was "operating at about 80 per cent of my capacity".

Lomu has agreed a two-year contract with North Harbour province and says he "can't wait to get on a plane home and get into it". In fact, his starting point may be much humbler with a couple of run-outs for the Massey club in Auckland. His rugby training to date has been minimal, just a few light contact sessions with mates before arriving at the plush hotel north of London which was last week's base for the "Johnno v Jonah" brigade. "Craig Dowd [the former All Black prop] tested me out," said Lomu with a grin. "Typical prop, head down and not even looking when we were supposed to be playing touch. If it's a leap of faith by North Harbour, then many coaches down the years have taken a leap of faith with me."

One such coach, John Hart, has known Lomu since the schooldays at South Wesley College which put the Tongan-descended kid on the right path from the wrong side of the tracks. "I think we're seeing something quite phenomenal," said Hart, who had charge of the All Blacks for the 1999 World Cup in which Lomu's unique brand of bulk and pace tormented England again.

"He's worked so hard on his fitness and getting ready for this game. It's huge for life not just rugby; the first step on a huge journey and we shouldn't expect too much too soon."

Hart believes Lomu is fêted more in Britain than in New Zealand and it is true that some Kiwis have begrudged the wealth which attended his fame. These curmudgeons trade on the All Blacks' ultimate flops in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, despite Lomu's tournament record 15 tries, not that New Zealand fared any better without him in Australia in 2003, losing to the hosts in a disappointing semi-final.

Perhaps the thing that has been driving Lomu to leg-press 400kg in the gym is a desire to prove his critics wrong as much as the seemingly extraordinary targets of a contract in Super 14 and making the 2007 World Cup. He has launched a charity, NeST, to support research into nephrotic syndrome.

"When I had an Achilles tendon injury for a few months I felt my way back with Marist Senior Reserves," said Kirwan. "Jonah's been out for two years. I'm just hoping he's well."

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