Lomu's decline shocks awards audience

Peter Bills
Saturday 22 November 2003 01:00

He Shuffled on to the stage, every sad step a major effort. Anxious hands reached out to help, concern creased every brow. Jonah Lomu was in town to collect a special award for his contributions to rugby football. But this was a very different man from the one who had destroyed England almost single-handedly at the 1995 World Cup.

Could it really have been only eight years ago that Lomu smashed through England, like a sledgehammer through a nut, on that Cape Town afternoon? For guests at the International Rugby Players' Awards Dinner here this week, were shocked at Lomu's appearance.

Lomu is just 28 but in poor health. That he is on kidney dialysis, awaiting a potential transplant, and that he had not played rugby for some time, was common knowledge. What no one expected was the stumbling, reduced figure who appeared on stage before the assembled throng.

To see a man of Lomu's power and might brought to this was a grievous sight. He spoke, hesitantly, falteringly for a few moments. Then, with assistance, he returned to his seat, slumping back wearily. In this World Cup Final week, when the game's fittest, finest sportsmen chase the glory of their sporting Valhalla, one pondered at the demise of a man once regarded as the game's mightiest.

Each sentence he spoke seemed an enormous effort. "I would like to thank all the players I played with and also the opponents. It has been a great privilege and great honour to represent my country and pull on an All Black jersey.

"I come from Tongan heritage as well, but everything started in New Zealand for me. There are not enough words to say how much I love this game. Today, I was asked, if I could give up five years of my life to put on that jersey again, would I do it? I would. I cannot walk very far, very quickly. That's because I have something wrong with the nerves in my feet. I am slowly sorting things out with my body. Don't be surprised to see me back."

The spirit was there, but the words of hope died quickly in his voice. He added: "Thank you very much for this award. This is a very enjoyable World Cup and good luck to the guys playing on Thursday and Saturday. It is a great sport, rugby, something that is very original. You don't get other professional sports that go out and hammer people for 80 minutes, and then have a beer together afterwards."

And with that, he was gone. But the great and the good paid tribute to him.

The former New Zealand hooker Eric Rush's tale was typical. "The first time I played against Jonah's team, I saw this beast running at me. I thought he was still wearing his sunglasses, but it turned out to be his nostrils flaring."

Rob Andrew, the former England fly-half, one of the guests at the dinner, said: "I have a fantastic photo of Jonah in full flight. I am horizontal to the ground, my arms out-stretched, trying to touch the great man. It was a privilege to play against him and I would like to thank him for choosing to run around me."

Despite the lack of mirth after Lomu's appearance it was heartening to learn of the good work the players' organisation is doing in trying to look after rugby players who have been injured. An auction and raffle alone at the dinner raised around A$125,000 (£53,000) and it will go a long way to helping the many players around the world whose careers have been curtailed by illness and injury.

To see one of the game's mightiest men so reduced by illness, was a sobering reminder of the thin margins between sporting triumph and personal survival.

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