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Polly's tribute: The Jonah I knew and loved

Our columnist opens up about her dearest friend

By Polly Gillespie
Firstly and most importantly, this is unauthorised, and simply one friend’s eulogy for a man who had many mates who knew him just as well or much better than I ever did.
Rugby mates, car mates, music mates, Kiwi mates, Aussie mates, South African mates, Welsh mates, English mates, Uruguayan mates, Dubai mates, French mates, school mates, neighbourhood mates, lifelong mates, random mates, coach mates, rival mates, doctor mates and most intimately, family, wives and children. I have no right to speak for anyone else and I do not speak for anyone else, but I loved him and will always miss my wonderful, irreplaceable friend Jonah.
Let me firstly expand on that. Jonah collected people. Everywhere I went with Jonah or whenever I was with him, he knew people and they were most of the time neither rich nor famous. You see, Jonah had passions. Jonah loved cars, music and beautiful things, and so he made the most interesting collection of friends. At one moment, I’d be being introduced to one of the world’s greatest rugby legends and the next, I’d be meeting an underground hip-hop DJ from South Auckland.
Jonah was the guy who could always hook you up. He knew everyone who could do anything that you might ever need done. If my shoes were too tight, he’d know a guy who could make them bigger or get some in a bigger size. If I needed to get rid of a ding I’d made in Grant’s car, Jonah would know who could do it in an hour. Jonah knew people. Jonah also had a small but tight group of mates that he’d made in his rugby career. Oh, sure, there were lots of great men he’d played with, but there was a tight group who stood by him through everything. They were “the brothers” and they were his wolf pack. They knew him differently than I knew him, but they loved and were loyal to the giant man. Their hearts will be crushed.
“He never bathed in glory,” Polly tells. “He knew he was special, but he found it more important to make you the special one.”
Instant bond
I met Jonah only 15 years ago, through his partner at the time. Say what you like, but Jonah had fantastic taste in women. Each one he loved and I loved them along with him. We met and we instantly became firm friends. He’d call me as I walked the hills trying to get fit and he’d tell me about a new cool exercise that would help me, and then he’d suggest I get a sauna installed in my house. I’d laugh and say, “Jonah, I can’t get a sauna!” He’d laugh and say, “I can hook you up, Miss Polly!” He’d come around to our house and create me new workout routines, and so many times I’d get a text at 5am in the studio saying, “Can I come up and bring food?” We would talk for hours on the phone and trusted each other implicitly.
I think I was one of the few people in the world who could tell him what to do – and he would sometimes listen. Later on, we would become even closer through his kidney transplant, but that’s not my story to tell. Of all the things he was, and the list is illustrious and long, he was the most generous soul I’ve ever known. It was dangerous to tell him you liked something for fear of it turning up on your doorstep. If you liked his jacket, he would take it off and give it to you. If you mentioned a scarf you’d seen in a fashion magazine, it’d arrive via courier from Milan.
He was generous with everyone. Many stories have been relayed from people around the world of Jonah giving away everything he had to someone who needed it slightly more than him. Jonah was generous with everyone and also had a way of making everyone he met feel comfortable and slightly taller than they were. The man was huge, but somehow he had developed a way of standing so that he was miraculously at your level. I never felt short with Jonah – he’d move himself in a way that brought him down while lifting you up. That was not simply in a physical sense. Oh, and he always called me Miss Polly, which made me feel like a southern lady from Gone with the Wind. It caught on and every mutual friend would refer to me as Miss Polly.
For years, he silently endured incredible illness and pain, but stoically and proudly went about his life and his commitments with no complaint. Perhaps if he had spent more time concentrating on his health, like the hypochondriac I am, then his life might have been different. Few people know that at the height of his career, he would play a game for Wellington and then fly back to Auckland for dialysis. At his most ill, he still lived a life most people could not imagine and certainly not endure. He was a miracle, yes, a freak of nature, and the kindest and cutest man I’ve ever known. I will miss the Chinese takeaways late at night and the pictures he’d send me from around the world of handbags and shoes he thought I might like. I’ll miss the hugs and the way he’d bow to get through the door. I’ll miss knowing that there was someone alive on earth who would stand up and fight for me no matter where or when, and he did.
For me, I forgot that he was the world’s most famous rugby player. He seldom spoke of the glory, but preferred to tell the funny stories about the other “boys”. It was easy to forget he was famous until you’d arrive somewhere with him in France and be mobbed by thousands of fans. He preferred to watch Antiques Roadshow over most test rugby. He never bathed in glory. He knew he was special, but he found it more important to make you the special one. I don’t want to stop writing because I’m afraid I haven’t told you enough about what a wonderful friend he was and a truly incredible man.
I don’t want to stop writing because then I am left only with my thoughts and my tears. While I write about him, I feel like he’s still alive. I speak for no-one else. We all have stories, but I have lost one of my dearest friends and confidants, and we have lost the greatest of all sporting legends.
I’ll see you on the other side, Jonah. I know that for sure.
Polly and Grant with Jonah and his then wife Fiona at Government House in Wellington after the All Black became
a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007.

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