It’s now an official sport of the Olympics! (Well, the 2016 Olympics anyway.) Congratulations to the International Rugby Board (IRB) and those involved in convincing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have Rugby Sevens (a faster paced 7-a-side version of the 15 player game) in the Olympic Games.
“We have already seen massive growth in the popularity of sevens through the world series and Commonwealth Games,” says Gordon Tietjens, coach for the Niu Sila / New Zealand Sevens team. “The pace of the game and having real athletes out there scoring tries – that’s what people want to see; a fast, exciting game.”
But some commentators have said the support and contribution of Jonah Lomu was a key figure as rugby persuaded the Olympic movement to include Sevens in their ranks for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Back in 2003, I remember when I was at uni, and a research company approached a group of us Pacific Islanders to particpate in a focus group session, where we were promised free pizza in exchange for our views. Always keen for a free feed, me and my mates went down to answer the nice lady’s questions.
The questions ranged from sports, to politics, to personal values. But one question that did stick out was when we were asked to give our opinion of lakapi / rugby player Jonah Lomu (of Tongan descent). The nice researcher lady was quite taken aback at our reactions. The majoirty of the group (including me) didn’t like the guy at all!
For those not familiar with Lomu, he is a former All Black that had the power and ‘Polynesian flair’ that wowed the rugby world. Despite having just two All Black caps, Lomu was included in the squad for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Jonah stunned international rugby audiences (and unsuspecting players) at the 1995 World Cup, when he scored seven tries in five matches, including four in the semi-final against England. In his first ever World Cup match, against Ireland in Johannesburg, he scored two tries in the 43–19 win. In the All Blacks’ quarter final, Jonah scored a try in the 48–30 win over Scotland at Loftus Versfeld. He shocked the 51,000 that packed into Newlands in Cape Town to see the semi-final against England, as he notched up four tries in the 45–29 defeat of the English, including a try in which he ran straight through England fullback Mike Catt.
The image of Lomu stomping all over Catt helped create the rugby sensation that he became. He is generally regarded as the first true global superstar of rugby union. One of the sport’s most intimidating players on the field, he has had a huge impact on the game. He was inducted to the International Rugby Hall of Fame on 9 October 2007.
So why did we not like the guy? Despite being a role model in the rugby world (especially a Polynesian role model), his personal life was littered with examples of how not to be a Polynesian.
He has been married and divorced twice and is now living with his third partner, who was herself married when she met Jonah. Nothing to hang the man for, but it was the way he handled these relationships, which, once aired in the media made many Polynesians cringe, and wonder what happened to this South Auckland hero.
In 1996, shortly after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Lomu married South African Tanya Rutter and she moved to live in New Zealand. Four years later in 2000, they were divorced. Then in August 2003, Jonah married his second wife Fiona (who also became his personal manager with a firm hand on all his finances) in a secret ceremony on Waiheke Island. A week later they held a party on the island for approximately 160 guests. Yet it became apparent that Lomu’s mother was not invited to the secret wedding.
In December 2007, it was reported that Lomu and his second wife Fiona were taking timeout from one another. Then in February 2008, it was then reported Lomu and his wife Fiona were divorcing. The reason for the divorce was another woman. Nadene Quirk was married to fringe Auckland Blues rugby player Jarek Goebel when she met Jonah in late 2007. Goebel was understandably devastated by what happened.
At the time of the focus group, it often felt the trappings of the life of a celebrity, the world fame, the large amounts of money, the women, had all got to Lomu, and he had lost the Polynesian trait of humbleness and respect. Although his later triumphs over sickness and his support for various causes was something to admire, his treatment of his mother at his (second) marriage ceremony never seemed to have left our minds.
When I travelled to London, Lomu was still considered a Rugby icon. It seemed as though Lomu was famous everywhere other than here in Niu Sila. In continental Europe, Lomu is immediately associated with Rugby. No doubt his presence in the Olympic bid must have helped.
This is probably an unfair piece I have written about Lomu, but it takes a lot more than convincing the IOC to have the Sevens in the Olympics to erase the memory of how he treated his mother. It goes to show, if you disrespect your mother, not even having persuasion over the world amounts to much.