Watching his two young sons charging around a friend’s farm on what would be his final birthday, Jonah Lomu’s heart swelled with joy and pride.
Here were the happy, smiling children he called his “miracles”, boys he thought his kidney disease had robbed him of the chance of ever having.
Together they were sharing the safe, loving childhood he was building for them, one far removed from his own troubled youth in Mangere, Auckland.
But even that day in May, as he celebrated turning 40 with a very special chocolate cake made by his devoted wife Nadene, the rugby superstar could hear the clock ticking ever louder.
“It’s more difficult by the minute,” he said, sharing his torment in a candid interview. “Turning 40, you wonder, how much longer is it going to be? And you just don’t know. I watch the two boys, who have so much energy, and I want to keep up with them, but I can’t. I kind of wish I’ll wake up and find it’s just a nightmare, but it’s not.”
This week, it’s little Brayley, just six, and his five-year-old brother Dhyreille who will be hoping against hope that, somehow, their gentle, dignified Dad’s death is, likewise, just a bad dream. Tragically for them and Nadene, it is all too real.
On Wednesday morning, the day after the family flew back to Auckland following three months of work for Jonah in Britain, a heart attack at home in Epsom cut his life horribly short.
Gone too soon
With undertakers on their way to the house along with stunned family and friends, shell-shocked Nadene told of her heartbreak in a statement. “It is with great sadness that I must announce my dear husband Jonah Lomu died last night,” she wrote. “As you can imagine, this is a devastating loss for our family.”
The next day, Nadene launched a Givealittle page, promising to fulfil the dreams she shared with her husband and prompting the website to crash as fans flocked to it.
“Jonah has left this Earth too soon, leaving us all empty-hearted,” she said. “Through Jonah’s strength, which remains in our two sons and myself, with his spirit that will forever be by my side, my promise is to bring the visions we both had planned to do together.”
Although he switched his dialysis sessions to night-time to spare them seeing him suffer, Brayley and Dhyreille grew up watching their father much changed from the barrelling, 114kg winger who once had crowds in awe and anticipation each time he touched the ball.
They learned to avoid touching what they called “Daddy’s ouch”, the tubes permanently attached to his chest to receive dialysis. They saw him come close to death in 2011, when his transplanted kidney failed after seven years. Yet to anyone who watched this giant of a man stamp himself indelibly on the global consciousness in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, swatting aside and trampling opponents like a frenzied bull let loose in a playground, it seems incomprehensible that anything could truly defeat Jonah.
He was, surely, a superhero who had stepped into real life from the pages of a comic book, as indestructible as his alter ego in the PlayStation game named after him.
Even after nearly 20 years battling the crippling effects of nephrotic syndrome and four years waiting for a second kidney transplant to end the agony of dialysis 18 hours a week, who would believe he’d finally fall?
Dad on a mission
Jonah himself had set a target of surviving until his sons reached 21, by which age he hoped they would feel secure, healthy and independent. “There are no guarantees that will happen,” he said in August, “but it’s my focus. It’s a milestone that every parent wants to get to.”
The boys gave him a purpose to push himself to the limits of endurance, forever travelling the world to meet an army of fans whose adulation for the All Black icon never dimmed, and to fulfil his commitment to charities like Unicef and Kidney Kids. The sponsors, the speeches and the dinners gave him an income he was relying on to secure Brayley and Dhryeille’s futures.
“We want to make sure that our projects are future-proofed for the boys,” he said earlier this year, explaining the exhausting schedule he and Nadene set themselves. “I want them to grow up, not spoiled in any way, but given the opportunities I believe they should have.
“I would not wish my childhood on anybody. I didn’t better myself to let them go through any hardship like I did.”
Jonah was already sure his sons were “gifted” at rugby, but he had more important legacies for them. “They are handsome boys,” he said. “I see a lot of me in both of them – although luckily they get their looks from their mum! The three of them are the reason I get up. I don’t give a damn how tired I am – I always try and I never give up. And that’s the biggest lesson I want to teach them.
“If there’s one thing I want to leave with the boys, it’s to never give up. By me not surrendering to my illness, I’m teaching them something I believe they’ll need in the future.”
Unlike many previous business trips, Jonah and Nadene had taken the boys to Britain with them in August for events based around the Rugby World Cup, which he called The Unstoppable Tour.
For three months, they based themselves in the seaside town on Bournemouth while Jonah worked tirelessly to meet the endless demand for his towering presence, and the stories of his 63-test All Black career and 37 barnstorming tries.
But he still found time to show his boys around historic London, enjoying a ride on an open-top double-decker bus despite being lashed by rain, seeing the birthplace of the sport he revolutionised and, even more importantly to Brayley and Dhyreille, a special trip to a train station.
“I want them to learn about the game,” he said at the time. “Then there’s Paddington Bear. I’m trying to tell them about the history of rugby and all we’ve heard since we got here is, ‘When are we going to Paddington Station?’”
Jonah loved every minute. “These are new adventures for them,” he revealed. “Getting them to write about this fantastic new world they have come to is going to be fun.”
At their age, Jonah himself knew nothing but happiness, living in a remote village in Tonga with no school, as he remembered later, but only church and “carefree days on the beach and playing in the water with the other kids”.
But that freedom ended just before his seventh birthday. Although born at Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital in 1975, he was brought up in the islands by his mother Hepi’s sister Longo and her husband Moses. They were the people he called Mum and Dad until Hepi and his father Semisi decided to take him back to New Zealand to start school, speaking not a word of English.
But hard-drinking Semisi ruled his five children with a rod of iron. He bullied Jonah until, at 15, the strapping youngster snapped and attacked him, leaving the family home to move in with his childhood sweetheart and first fiancée Elaine Makiha.
“I didn’t want to put up with it any more,” he said later. “To me, a father is supposed to love and care for you. My father, the first time I was sick, turned round and said to me, ‘The reason you are ill like this is because God is punishing you for not listening to me.’ That’s an insight into the sort of person he was while I was growing up.”
The rift would only begin to be healed in 2008, when Jonah discovered Nadene was pregnant and she demanded he get in contact to make peace, knocking on the door of his parents’ home for the first time in many years.
“The first words that came out of my mouth were, ‘You’re going to be a granddad,’” he later recalled. “It was very emotional. We were both bawling our eyes out, as you can imagine. Just forgiving each other.”
In 2011, then seriously ill himself, Semisi was invited to the couple’s wedding. Not long after, Jonah was there to carry his father’s coffin when he died two years later. Now former factory worker Hepi has to mourn once more. It was she who, afraid of teenage Jonah’s ties to violent street gangs and constant run-ins with the police, found him a place at Wesley College, the South Auckland boarding school where he obliterated almost every sporting record.
“There is more to thank her for than anyone else in the world,” Jonah said of his mother. "I wouldn’t have found rugby if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for her either.”
As a permanent reminder of his wild youth, Jonah had one thumb half the size of the other and a collection of scars.
“I punched someone in the head and the bone got infected, and they had to cut it off,” he explained. “I have a stab wound on my left hip and one on my thigh, and a slash mark across my right calf. I have a bottle stab wound on my left calf.”
But through school sport, Jonah transformed himself. He was picked as the youngest-ever All Black at 19, facing France in 1994, but in those pre-professional days, he still had to find a job, working as a bank teller for ASB.
It didn’t last long. He was simply sensational at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, becoming one of the world’s most talked about sportsmen and prompting tycoon Rupert Murdoch to write a cheque for $850 million to launch the Super Rugby era.
The next few years were packed with astonishing triumphs on the field. There was a gold medal in Sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, scoring eight tries at the 1999 World Cup and, perhaps his greatest game, winning the Bledisloe Cup with a last-ditch try against Australia in Sydney in 2000.
Loves & losses
Away from the game he lived for, life had ups and downs. He had a big, soft heart and when Jonah fell in love, he fell hard. During the 1995 World Cup, he’d fallen for South African student Tanya Rutter, causing him to call off his second engagement, to shop assistant Leanne Russell. He brought Tanya home to Auckland, buying his first house in Manukau and staging a secret wedding, without his parents, at a beachside reserve.
There were repercussions. Jonah wept openly when he and Tanya appeared live on Sir Paul Holmes’ TV show to explain why Hepi and Semisi were missing.
“It was the hardest thing,” said Jonah, with tears rolling down his cheeks. “I was scared they wouldn’t let me do it.”
With Paul’s help, the couple organised a second, televised wedding in South Africa, to which he flew 40 family and friends. But the young man’s passions for hip-hop, huge car stereos, KFC feasts and video games were at odds with Tanya’s ambitions.
After Tanya discovered scores of gushing texts on her husband’s cellphone between him and young Wellington woman Teina Stace, he left their lavish home at a gated community in Karaka, never to return. But despite an engagement, his and Teina’s romance foundered after three years.
On Waiheke Island in 2003, he married another great love, Auckland business consultant Fiona Taylor, who took over Jonah’s management from Phil Kingsley-Jones, the fast-talking Welshman who had guided him since his blockbusting school days. That marriage saw him through his 2004 kidney transplant, when the donor, his great friend and radio host Grant Kereama, effectively saved Jonah’s life.
Fiona stood by Jonah as he made an ill-fated attempt at a comeback in 2005, but two years later, she too was left behind, reportedly frustrated by her husband’s refusal to finally quit the game even five years after his last All Black cap.
Nadene had been a friend from the Teina years in Wellington, where her mother ran a pasta restaurant. She went through a divorce herself before she and Jonah got together in 2008, and quickly the couple defied odds of 100,000-to-one to become parents.
The pregnancy was revealed when Nadene collapsed at a wedding reception. The man who had in 2004 declared, “To me, rugby is not just important – it’s life,” found life turned on its head.
“My perspective has changed so much since Brayley arrived,” he said. “It’s no longer just me and my partner – it’s us as a family. I’m going to cherish every minute.”
The family moved to the South of France in 2009 and, on a trip to Paris, Jonah pulled out all stops to ask Nadene, by then pregnant again with Dhyreille, to be his third wife.
“I chartered a boat to go down the River Seine, where I’d arranged a candlelit dinner,” he told. “I got the signal from my friend on board and I proposed just as we were going past the Eiffel Tower.”
He presented her with a 4.5-carat diamond and platinum ring, and they wed at a secret cliff-top ceremony in Wellington in 2011, with their darling boys beside them. Nadene declared, “I’m madly in love with Jonah. With our two boys, marriage just completes the package.”
And that love, passion and devotion never wavered, despite the demands of sickness, work and travel taking their toll at times. “I said to Jonah the other day, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep going,’” she said in June. “Still, as crazy as it sounds, we are a very, very happy family with the love we have for each other.”
Of course, she still has her glittering rings, but there’s no doubt she would swap all the riches of the world for just a few more moments with the sweet, humble giant she, Aotearoa and the world, far beyond rugby, fell in love with.
Yet Nadene, a devout Christian who brought her husband into the Mormon church, knows that Jonah, while never accepting defeat, had come to terms with his destiny.
“I’m really lucky,” Jonah insisted. “I’ve already lived more in one lifetime than many people would in six or seven. The thing about being human is that everybody has to die sometime. For me, the important question to ask is, ‘Can you look in the mirror and say you’ve done everything you can to enjoy life?’”
For him – and a grateful nation now in mourning but treasuring some of the most thrilling, joyful moments any sportsman has ever given us – there’s no doubting the answer. Thank you, Jonah.