Ireland’s record try-scorer Brian O’Driscoll has hailed Jonah Lomu as ‘an absolute gent’ with all the qualities you could hope to find in a hero.
O’Driscoll was as shocked as the rest of the world to learn that Lomu had died this morning after a heart attack ended his long battle with the kidney disease, nephrotic syndrome.
“I saw a pop-up on my phone, saying he had passed away and I just couldn’t get to sleep after it,” says O’Driscoll who was awake with his young child.
“I was just shocked, because as much as he had been sick between 2002 and 2011, he was in good form over the World Cup, he was out and about and there was no sign that this was imminent,” the former Ireland centre added in conversation with Today FM’s Anton Savage.
“In ’95 he was unstoppable,” says O’Driscoll digging in to his memory banks to tell a tale, perhaps apocryphal, about how Ireland’s players attempted to cope in their World Cup encounter with the new wonder-kid on the international scene.
“(Lomu) went on a run and Gary Halpin ran past Nick Popplewell. Poppy said to him:
‘Where are you going, Gary?’
‘I’ve to go and tackle him”
‘Be careful, if you get there too quickly you might have to actually tackle him’”
Lomu, O’Driscoll notes, changed the game in more ways than just his physicality. He was good enough to help loosen the blazers that restricted rugby dressing rooms simply by acting naturally. If a little music helped Jonah, why shouldn’t everyone listen in?
“I think even a lot of the Kiwis in that (1995) squad thought: ‘who is this kid?’
“The guy who comes into the dressing room and turns on the ghetto blaster full blast, listening to his music at full blast and gets told ‘this isn’t the done thing’. Yet he got accepted.
“He was obviously good out on the training pitch and then once he started playing games it became ‘Jonah can do what he wants,’ because he’s Jonah Lomu and was basically killing teams on his own.”
However good Lomu was, he would never have been afforded a little wiggle room on team protocol if, deep down, he wasn’t a genuine, humble and affable man.
“He was a freak of rugby player, but an absolute gent off the pitch and someone you would really love your kids to look up to – a real superstar of the game that had all the qualities you would hope to have in a hero.”
O’Driscoll sums up the character of world’s best ever winger as:
“The antithesis of brash. I don’t know if he would be as outgoing as he was forced to be. He was a very shy person and had to give a lot of himself. Because, realistically, he was the first big superstar. In recent years you see Richie McCaw and Dan Carter starting to fit that mold, but really not touching on his status.
“It’s a shock to think that, at 40 years of age, he’s gone.”