The five Irishmen in the hotel lounge in west London can scarcely believe their eyes. "Bejeezus, it's Jonah! Hey Jonah! Jonah, can we have our picture taken with you?" The great man obliges before settling into a chair, no easy matter at 6ft 5in and 19st. Unlike most men of his bulk, however, and I wouldn't say it to his face, he is rather beautiful.
The Irishmen leave the hotel, unable to believe their luck. And I feel privileged too. Rugby has only ever had one global superstar and here he is, having agreed to this interview to promote the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, at which he will again be representing New Zealand in the rugby sevens competition. He has a much-cherished gold medal to show for his last appearance, four years ago in Kuala Lumpur.
"It was one of the highlights of my career," says Lomu, softly. (His gentle voice, incidentally, resembles his car stereo system not at all. It is his curious ambition to build the loudest car stereo in the world, and he has lent his name to the mother of all speakers, the Jonah Lomu 11 fusion, which he proudly tells me will play music at 165 decibels, some 17 decibels louder than the sound of a Boeing 747 taking off. "That's amazing," I say, in the tone of voice I reserve for my six-year-old son when he tells me what he still needs to do to become a fully fledged Pokemon trainer).
"I can't believe that not many nations take sevens seriously," Lomu continues. "You can show your wares better, and it's a good stepping stone into the 15-man game. Eric Rush, Christian Cullen and myself all made it into the All Blacks via sevens. The Commonwealth Games are already on the guys' minds, believe me."
I believe him. Not only does Lomu have a sweet, God-fearing nature to lend conviction to his words, there is also the memory of him obliterating Mike Catt on the way to scoring the first of his four tries in the 1995 World Cup semi-final against England in Cape Town.
For that one fleeting moment, Catt was reduced to a mere pretence of a rugby player, a lonely figure in the right kit but the wrong place, like an Action Man being squashed by a Sherman tank. His consolation is in knowing that Tony Underwood, Jeremy Guscott, Will Carling and Austin Healey, and that's just to name the Englishmen, have since shared the experience.
Lomu seems to reserve his awesome best for matches against England, yet professes great admiration for English rugby. "Martin Johnson is inspirational," he enthuses. "Dallaglio, Healey, they're great players. And you have lots of unsung heroes, like Jason Leonard. Jason Robinson, he's excellent, too."
He and Robinson have something in common, I point out, both having changed codes from rugby league. "Changing codes, yeah, yeah," says Lomu, excitedly.
"I started in rugby league and things were going really well, but the problem was that my parents wouldn't let me play on Sundays and the trials were always on Sundays. I had to go to church."
I have never thought of Lomu as a latter-day Eric Liddell – another international wing threequarter, as it happens – but then there is much more to him than meets the eye, as if what meets the eye were not enough. He tells me about his childhood in a notoriously tough neighbourhood of notoriously tough South Auckland.
"We lived in Maunganui, which we call 'Man Angry'. There was one street known as 'The Gauntlet'. There's a motorway through there now. But back then, if you could run 'The Gauntlet' you'd be all right.
"You only walked it if you were stupid or had guts. A couple of mates and me decided to walk it when I was about 12. If you didn't know how to fight, you were in trouble. But I was OK. I could fight and I could run. I got my sports talent from my mother. She used to be a runner, and a lot of my uncles, her brothers, played rugby for Tonga. A couple of them were boxers, too."
When Lomu was 12, he was sent to a boarding school, Wesley College. To pay for it, his parents took out a second mortgage on their home, not that his father, a mechanic, was there much, for he had to work overtime on his overtime. Why, I ask, did they take such drastic measures to send him away to school?
"Well, I lost an uncle who was decapitated and chopped up in a shopping centre," says Lomu, as matter-of-factly as I might tell him that I had an uncle who was a fishmonger. Sorry? Did he say decapitated?
"Yeah, it was bit of violence between two rival Polynesian groups. And then in the early '90s I lost a cousin who was stabbed. That's when my mother said: 'Pack your bags, boy. You're off to boarding school.'
"It was hard in my first year there. I missed my friends and I tried to get kicked out so I could go home. But when I was 14 I got into the first XV, and that made it easier all round, because other colleges started offering me scholarships, so the Wesley College trustees stepped in and gave me a full scholarship."
He joined the first XV as a second-row forward. "I played inter-house basketball, and did a lot of slam-dunking. The team needed a lock and they knew about my vertical leap. I still remember all my friends in the third and fourth forms running out to my art class and knocking on the window, shouting: 'Jonah, you've made the first XV!' Rugby was so big there that when you walked off the field guys in your own class would come up and say: 'Can I wash your boots tonight?' When there's a first XV game, everything stops. Chants go up the whole 80 minutes. And the schools final gets watched by close to 10,000 people."
Even in such a rugby-mad environment, however, young Lomu was singled out as a remarkable prospect. But still his parents would not let him play on Sundays.
"I remember the turning point. In a way it is still my biggest moment in rugby. Because I was really short-tempered, and if someone hit me on a rugby field I'd chase them for the rest of the game. But in this one game, when I was 15, my head was sticking out of a ruck, which the ball had just left, and this guy hit me across the face.
"I looked at him, and my mum, who was there, looked at me, and I just carried on playing. My mum's fear was always that I didn't know my own strength. But after that game she said to me: 'You've done it. You're your own person now, and you can make your own decisions. Trust in the Lord and do what you believe to be right." I said: 'I want to play on Sundays.'
After that there was no stopping his progress. And when he turned 18 he was selected, as a prop forward, to play sevens for the province.
"I was a prop but I was running round people, and the coach said to me: 'The All Blacks selectors are looking at you as a winger. What are the chances of you playing on the wing?' Anyway, one of our wingers got injured, so I jumped out on the wing, and in the final I happened to run in four tries. I went to the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994, and got an All Blacks trial. I'd played two first-class games in the 15-man game, and the next thing I knew I was pulling on an All Blacks jersey to become the youngest-ever Test player."
The match was against France; Lomu was 19 years and 45 days old, and so apprehensive beforehand that he vomited. "Ooooh, I was so nervous," he says.
"I still get it now, whenever I'm pulling on a black jersey with a silver fern. But it's my drug. It's addictive. Talk to any past player and they'll tell you they'd give their right arm and leg to have one more game for the All Blacks."
It's a wish that might be partly realised if they were to wander through the shopping centre where his uncle met his untimely end. But it would be cheap to say so. Instead I ask what it was like, performing the haka before that French match? Before any match?
"Fantastic. It gets you so pumped up, screaming out your lungs, slapping your chest, whacking your thighs. I don't think it's intimidating, but it gets you focused. The All Blacks haka is the most common one. There are lots of different hakas, and at school we did six or seven of them. The prefects got you up at two in the morning to practise them, too."
Lomu, it appears, is well-acquainted with the wee small hours. "Nobody knows this," he confides, "but I didn"t sleep the whole night before the [World Cup] semi-final [against England, in Cape Town] in '95. My room in the hotel overlooked the car park, with Table Mountain on one side and Newlands right in front of me. And I was so on edge, looking at all those English flags, all those silver fern flags, that I sat there looking out of the window all night, listening to music.
"My room-mate Frank Bunce knew I didn't get any sleep, and was wondering whether I'd have any energy. But I was so excited. At breakfast I ate all these muffins and looked at Zinzan Brooke and kept saying: 'Zinny, I'm an All Black, I'm an All Black'."
That semi-final, of course, bestowed legendary status on the sleep-deprived Jonah Lomu. Even before the end of the tournament his manager, Phil Kingsley-Jones, found himself fending off enquiries from American football teams. But Lomu doesn't rule out a gridiron career. "I watch American football a lot," he says. "I loved 'The Fridge' [William Perry, the former Chicago Bears defensive tackle], the way he would run over things. I follow the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. I wouldn't mind being a running back one day."
And what of the persistent rumours that he might wind up playing rugby in England?
"I would love it," he says. "But the NZRU won't select you if you're playing overseas. If they change that rule, the option opens right up. But until they do, I'm staying in New Zealand. It would be great to play against the Lions in 2005 and the World Cup is unfinished business. By the end of my career I want to know that I've done everything possible, mentally and physically, to win the World Cup with the All Blacks. But if it's a three-time strike-out [in 2003] then I'll have to re-evaluate whether to have a crack at it a fourth time."
At the risk of entering a Bateman cartoon – The Man Who Doubted Jonah Lomu – I ask whether he will still be physically equipped in 2007? After all, he'll be 32 then and there are those who reckon he has already lost some of his blistering pace (100 metres in 10.89sec) as a result of the life-threatening kidney illness he suffered in 1996, during which his weight ballooned to 32 stone and he had to take 13 tablets a day. "And big things too, like horse tablets. Seven in the morning and six at night."
He insists that the kidney disorder is under control – "I'm down to one small tablet, which keeps my kidneys stable" – and that he is as quick as he ever was.
"In fact I think I can get it even quicker," he adds. "I would need to lose weight, but I put on muscle mass really quickly, and you need bulk on you to last a season of rugby. I'm a better player now. I actually think about what I'm doing, and there's more in my repertoire than crash and bash. People still brace themselves for me to run through them. They don't expect me to sidestep them."
Never mind his car stereo speakers, it is news of the Jonah Lomu sidestep that will bring music to Mike Catt's ears.
Commonwealth Games ticket hotline: 0870 1622002Reuse content