Star's admission that Japan would be good choice as host of World Cup sparks Kiwi fury
What started out as just another public relations exercise for Jonah Lomu during a whistle-stop visit to Hong Kong last week quickly turned into a major PR disaster for the former All Black winger.
Comments he made to the media about Japan and its 2011 World Cup hosting bid were denounced back home in New Zealand, whose union is also bidding for the tournament.
Having covered a range of topics, from the shoulder injury he picked up during Martin Johnson's testimonial match ('it feels great now') to his comeback plans ('I'm talking to a couple of English clubs'), the South China Morning Post then asked him if it was time the World Cup came to Japan.
Lomu, who underwent a kidney transplant 14 months ago, categorically stated he was all for the 15-a-side showpiece being played for the first time in Asia.
Lomu said: 'If the World Cup came to Japan, it is going to grow the global game. Everyone always talks about the best things in terms of growing the game and in this respect, I think it is time for the World Cup to come to Japan and Asia.'
He added: 'New Zealand is also pushing for it and it will be a big ask for Japan. But everybody is on a level playing field. If it came to Japan, it would be the first time the World Cup will be played in Asia. It is outside the norm but Japan has got enough rugby players and Japan has got the stadiums to do it.'
To be certain that there was no grey area surrounding his comments, the Post asked him again what the implications would be for world rugby if Japan hosted the event.
He said: 'If Japan wins it, rugby will just get bigger. The game is going to be more accessible to everyone and more open to Asia. A World Cup in Japan will show that rugby is truly a global game.'
The story carried in the South China Morning Post on Wednesday created a wave of controversy in New Zealand. Television and radio were the first to pick it up, with newspapers quickly following. Lomu was panned on the radio.
Ali McCullough, a New Zealander who works in Hong Kong as the communications manager for the Hong Kong Golf Association, was listening to Newstalk 1ZB when Auckland sports commentator Murray Deaker raised the subject. Ali called the Post sports desk, saying: 'It is a hot topic and they [listeners] are slamming Jonah'.
Lomu returned home on Wednesday with his wife Fiona (who is also his manager and was present at the interview) and flew straight into the storm. He backtracked and said he was mis-quoted.
Craig Stanaway, a sports reporter with TV New Zealand, called the Post asking for clarification. The Post played back the tape of the interview and Stanaway ran a story corroborating the original story.
In a damage limitation exercise, Lomu released a statement denying he had backed Japan. 'I want to be clear to New Zealanders that I have not put my support behind Japan's bid, nor have I ever been asked to,' the 30-year-old said. 'I am 100 per cent behind New Zealand. I feel a huge loyalty to this country. It's the country I live in and love.'
This is not the first time Lomu has been in this situation. In March 2004 he was invited to the Hong Kong Sevens. He granted the Post an interview and during the course of it, he revealed he had found a suitable donor and that a kidney transplant operation could be carried out before the end of the year.
The Post ran the story the next day and it made headlines worldwide - and back home in New Zealand. With the Kiwi media clamouring for more information, Lomu again backtracked and his physician deniedthat a donor had been found. In July that year, Lomu had a successful transplant operation.
On this occasion, his comments might have touched a raw nerve with the New Zealand Rugby Union which is in a tight three-way battle with Japan and South Africa to secure the 2011 World Cup hosting rights, with the successful bid to be announced on November 17. The union has so far declined to respond to Lomu's comments.