Long live the Lomu dream
Memories flooded back for Jonah Lomu when he watched New Zealand run on to the field to begin their campaign to thwart England of a hat-trick of Cup Championships and win the Hong Kong Sevens for a record-equalling 10th time.
'This is where it all started. My rugby career really took off in Hong Kong and I will always be grateful for that,' says Lomu, who figured in New Zealand's triumphant hat-trick run from 1994 to 1996, playing alongside Eric Rush.
Back as a guest of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Board this weekend, Lomu will cheer the Kiwis on from the union's corporate box during today's pool games and when the knockout stages start tomorrow.
'I have got to back my boys to win. They are a very good side and they will be motivated for this is the tournament everyone wants to win,' said Lomu yesterday. 'You can make do without winning any other tournament, but if you don't win Hong Kong, you are crushed. Happily, I never knew that feeling for we won in the three years I took part.'
Lomu will watch enviously as Rush and company battle it out in the middle. Suffering from a debilitating kidney disease which has left him struggling to walk at times, Lomu has been sidelined for the past 18 months from the game he loves. But, happily, he can see the light again.
Lomu revealed that a friend will donate his kidney and that a transplant will be done sometime this year. The operation will pave the way for a comeback to the international arena, says Lomu.
'I want to end my rugby career on my terms and not because of illness. I aim to play again for the All Blacks. And you never know, if everything goes well, I could even be back here again, playing for New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup Sevens next year,' said Lomu.
His dream is attainable now that a matching kidney donor has been found. If rehabilitation after the operation is quick, then Hong Kong fans might one day see the giant winger literally stamping his presence on the opposition again. He is only 28. Time is still on his side.
It was just a decade ago that he came to Hong Kong, as an unknown teenager, one of the first players picked by sevens coach Gordon Tietjens, who went on to become a star for the All Blacks in the 15s code.
'The Hong Kong Sevens is a great catapult for young players. It is a world stage in terms of rugby. If you look at the statistics, you will find that there have been a huge number of players who have gone on to represent New Zealand internationally having played here. If you take the Super 12 also, the strike rate must be around 90 per cent,' Lomu said.
Lomu knows, for he has been here and done it - in the company of the great Rush as well as Dallas Seymour, who now coaches Hong Kong in sevens.
'My love and passion for Hong Kong comes from Eric. It was he who told me all about this tournament. I used to dream about it when I was just a kid. It is just phenomenal that Rushie is still around. I found out that at a recent trial that he ran quicker than what he did four years ago.
'It all comes down to preparation and determination. He is just amazing. He has the respect of the other players and leads from the front. They will follow him to the brink of death,' says Lomu.
Lomu, who rose to fame when he scored four tries in the 45-29 semi-final demolition of England at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa including one try where he trampled England fullback Mike Catt, is famously known for his bulldozing runs. But he has been on the receiving end a few times, too.
'I remember in sevens when I was tackled by Mick Skinner. I was just knocked over and flat on the ground when I saw Rushie pass by saying 'get up mate, don't let them see you on the ground'. And there I was with no feeling in my legs,' laughed Lomu.
His kidney ailment was first diagnosed way back in 1995. But it was only in 1997 that Lomu came out and said publicly that he was suffering from the rare kidney disease nephrotic syndrome. He could no longer hide or give excuses as to why it was taking longer for him to heal from cuts and bruises.
'My condition was known in 1995. At the time I didn't think much of it and I said to myself that this was not going to change how I felt about rugby. I kept it to myself at the start but by 1997 it had become so obvious that I had to go public and reveal my condition,' Lomu said.
Lomu figured in his second World Cup in 1999, when New Zealand were beaten by a magical display from the French in the semi-finals. It was his second disappointment at the World Cup. It was better on the sevens stage as he figured prominently in New Zealand's 2001 World Cup Sevens triumph in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Lomu scored a hat-trick as the Kiwis beat Australia 31-12 to be crowned World Cup Sevens champions for the first time. He has also won a Commonwealth Games gold medal. But his hopes of playing in his third 15-a-side World Cup suffered a blow when his medical condition began to worsen a couple of years ago.
At the beginning of last year, Lomu's kidney disease took a turn for the worse and he was barely able to walk. He had to be hooked on to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day and doctors predicted that unless he received a kidney transplant, his life would be in danger.
Thankfully, Lomu has found a donor now, a friend who is willing to give up a kidney so that he can play again, and add to his 63 Test caps. 'I want to play again. My ambition is to wear the All Black jersey again.'
Good news for Hong Kong, for Lomu adds that he is keen to play sevens again in the place where he first came into the limelight.
'Hong Kong has been great. It has so many memories for me. I remember the first time I played against Waisale Serevi. He scored a try against us and we were all waiting for him to take the kick. We waited, and waited, until Serevi had our rapt attention. Then he winked at us and cheekily knocked the conversion over.
'I remember coming up against the Koreans who could run all day at 100 miles per hour. They were the most tiring side I have played against. But the good thing about sevens is that you don't have time to worry, for if you do, you are left behind. Unlike in 15s where you have 80 minutes and plenty of time to get back, in sevens you don't have much time. I'm sure the new boys on our team will learn that quickly. The new guys like Rudi Wulf can only learn from playing beside a guy like Rushie. This is a great learning experience. I know that myself.'