Upbeat Lomu works his magic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am

Former All-Black great says coming to Hong Kong even as a non-player is still a great feeling

He has the aura of Muhammad Ali. And he moves curiously like 'The Greatest' in his early days of Parkinson's syndrome - slightly hunched and leaden-footed. But for Jonah Lomu, he has found the light at the end of the tunnel.

Lomu's debilitating kidney disease has manifested itself in his feet, swollen like a rugby ball and with no feeling.

'Eighty to 90 per cent of my body is as strong as can be,' Lomu said yesterday. 'It's just my feet. I can't keep my balance. I have no feeling in my feet.

'Stand on one foot and close your eyes,' he challenges you. 'What happens? You lose your balance. It's a lot like that. That is what's keeping me back.'

Lomu suffers from nephrotic syndrome and is fighting it with constant doses of dialysis. He topped himself up before coming to Hong Kong in a role as an unofficial ambassador of the Sevens.

The former All Black colossus speaks fervently about the game and his future in it, after what he hopes will be a successful transplant later this year. And, of course, if his feet still work.

'The message from my brain runs down and stops before my feet. It gets half way down the calf and doesn't want to go any further - it wants to go on holiday,' Lomu says, treating this life-threatening condition with jocularity.

'It is something that I have had to live with,' he says. But it was kept a secret for two years, until his public admission in 1997.

'The thing that I have learnt from this is that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. I have been sitting in that tunnel for years. I have been working towards that light the whole time and keeping positive.

'You can just sit and let that light go out and you never get another opportunity. I've been given an opportunity to do things and keep myself occupied. My mind is fresh and positive. I've got dreams and things I want to achieve.'

They are grandiose - playing for the All Blacks again and at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong next year.

First he needs a transplant. A friend has volunteered his kidney and Lomu talks passionately about this man who would give up part of him to help him survive. 'I am just grateful that there is someone out there who is willing to give a piece of him to let another person live ... and that other person just happens to be me.

'How can you thank anybody who is willing to put themselves in that situation. That's a sacrifice for a friend.' Perhaps, this friend has seen Lomu's halo. Thousands of fans rose to Lomu on Friday night and former teammates and rivals lauded him like the great one. The 28-year-old had to fight back the tears.

Yesterday, the future generation mobbed Lomu at their mini-rugby festival before day two began. Many of the children have probably never seen him play, but that's the man's magic. 'It's been pretty overwhelming ... very emotional as this is where rugby started for me,' said Lomu, struggling to recall a reception that has even matched the hero-worship of the past two days.

'Trying to hold back the tears has been hard. I was choked walking out and meeting the crowd. Then I ran into the old firm - Eric Rush and Dallas Seymour. Now that brings back some great memories because those guys were very influential in what I have achieved. They are great friends and mentors, guys to look up to. They were my idols when I was still at school. I sat every night and watched them play in Hong Kong and cheered them on. And then when I left school, I ended up playing with these guys.'

Lomu came to Hong Kong in 1994 and within three days was in the All Blacks selectors' consciousness and a soon-to-be household name in New Zealand and around the world 'This is such a special tournament,' he says. 'Coming here as a non-player is still a great feeling. All this emotion coming back because this is the tournament that everyone wants to win. If you talk sevens, you relate it to Hong Kong.

'Talk to anyone who has won the Hong Kong [Sevens], it's the most satisfying because it's the toughest.'

Lomu may be completely drained by today and in need of a dialysis machine but he will still be standing there signing autographs for children until his minders drag him away. His wife, Fiona, keeps a close watch.

'I'm trying to give back to a sport that has given me so much,' Lomu starts again and then doesn't stop. 'Anyway that I can, I want to reach out and touch the kids, whether it's signing autographs, talking to them, passing the ball ... whatever. It's passing on knowledge and just giving something back.'

Does he ever stop talking? Not when it's rugby, says Fiona.