It may be nearly a dozen years since Jonah Lomu last played for New Zealand, but the giant winger still knows how to draw a crowd.
Lomu was the good-will ambassador for the recent leg of the International Rugby Board World Sevens Series in Wellington, and over the two-day tournament he was besieged by fans asking for photos and autographs.
It is just part of being one of the most recognised rugby players in the world and something Lomu, who played 63 Tests for the All Blacks, has become accustomed to since he burst onto the world stage at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
For his two young boys, Dhyreille, 3, and Brayley, 5, it remains a puzzle why their father gets so much attention when they are out. “They ask, ‘Dad, why is that man over there calling out to you?’ or ‘Why do they want photos?’ I just say to them, ‘It’s because they are good friends.’”
His sons and wife, Nadene, have become a source of strength for the man who steamrolled England fullback Mike Catt.
That 1995 World Cup semifinal in Cape Town where Lomu, then just 20, scored four tries and ran over England players at will has become etched in rugby folklore. A winger of Lomu’s size, power and speed had never been seen on a rugby field before, and Lomu became a star -- and rugby’s first millionaire -- virtually overnight.
He remains the all-time leading try-scorer at Rugby World Cups, with 15. He scored 37 tries in all for New Zealand between 1994 and 2002.
Yet even in 1995, Lomu was battling nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disease, which eventually led to his getting a kidney transplant in 2004, two years after he was forced to quit international rugby.
But just after taking part in the opening ceremony of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, he was rushed to a hospital, where it was discovered that his transplant was failing.
Two and a half years later, the 38-year-old remains on the transplant list and undergoes dialysis every other day for four to six hours.
“My health issues haven’t hindered me in any way in doing the things I need to do,” Lomu said. “It’s just making sure that I monitor and do the things that I need to do to make sure I’m right.”
It would be understandable if Lomu felt some bitterness about the hand he has been dealt. But there is none.
“For me it’s part and parcel of my life. It’s one of the cards I’ve been dealt with,” he said of his health issues. “The more you dwell on it, the more it’s going to drag you down. It doesn’t drag me down at all.”
He credits rugby with giving him the skills required to deal with the ups and downs of his illness and thanks his family, friends and former team-mates who have been there during the tough times.
“More importantly, I have a beautiful wife and two kids that absolutely help me get up in the mornings and enjoy life and look forward to what the next adventure is,” added Lomu, who was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in October 2011.
His next adventure could well include the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Lomu, who was a member of the New Zealand sevens team that won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and the champion Sevens World Cup team in 2001, was a crucial member of the International Rugby Board delegation that got sevens rugby into the Olympics. He hopes to be involved in Brazil two years from now.
“Now the one thing I can say when I sit there with my two boys and watch the Olympic Games is that Dad helped sevens get to the Olympic Games,” he said. “And for me, that’s just as good as winning gold.”
Sevens rugby’s entry into the Olympic programme has opened the game up to countries not traditionally associated with rugby, like China and Brazil. In other countries, such as the United States and Canada, the lure of medals has resulted in the pouring of money into the sport.
“This is the future of rugby. A hundred and forty-two countries play the game now. It’s truly a global sport, but at the same time it’s competitive all round,” he added. “In the 15-man game you watch, and you already know who is really going to win. But in sevens you wouldn’t have a clue. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
That was evident at the tournament in Wellington, where New Zealand, the reigning World Champions and last year’s World Series winners, lost, 12-7, to Fiji in pool play but then did not concede another point on the way to winning the title.
Lomu is a mentor to Australia fullback Israel Folau. Folau, a former rugby league star and Australian Rules football player, had a meteoric rise last year in his rookie rugby union season, in which he went from making his Super Rugby debut to Wallabies star in less than 12 months.
He and Lomu are both of Tongan heritage and talk regularly. They spoke recently about the mental challenge of staying in top form season after season as Folau prepared for his second Super Rugby campaign with the New South Wales Waratahs.
“Any way I can help a player or help motivate them or give them a little bit of guidance, I’m absolutely open to,” said Lomu. “It doesn’t matter what country they come from. The one thing about rugby is that you’re constantly giving back, and that’s just one way of doing that.”