A giant will be remembered
ONE RAINY MID-WEEK
winter’s evening in 2010, in the build-up to the All Blacks’ first home test of the season, I hosted a dinner for several people at my home in Auckland.
Among the guests were a celebrity chef, an acclaimed actress, some well-known faces from the worlds of business and fashion – and a retired rugby player.
A very famous rugby player. Which is like saying the Rolling Stones have a lead singer. A famous lead singer.
Sadly, the famous rugby player is no longer with us, but the name Jonah Lomu will never be forgotten. Incredibly it will be two years this November since the Big Man’s untimely passing shocked not only the rugby world, but the whole planet. Who will ever forget the Irish
Examiner’s poignant, brilliant front page tribute, which spoke for us all?
Also at the dinner that night was film and TV producer Steven O’Meagher of Desert Road, who was telling me about two projects his company was developing.
One – The Golden Hour – would become the superb story of Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and Arthur Lydiard, which earned Desert Road an International Emmy documentary nomination in 2013, the first Kiwi company to do so.
The other project involved my friend Jonah Lomu. Because Steven had persuaded Jonah that his life story should be made into a feature film. And after some humming and hahing, Jonah had agreed.
I was an early supporter of the project for a number of reasons.
First, Jonah’s story defies any logical explanation. It’s no ordinary rags to riches tale. A kid raised on a tiny Tongan island who became the ‘face’ of rugby as the game went professional – and before he was 20 – was, all the time and unknown to us, fighting a crippling, and eventually lethal kidney disease which killed him at the age of 40.
Secondly, unlike boxing [take your pick], baseball [ Bull Durham], American football [ Any Given Sunday or the TV series Friday
Night Lights] there has never been a truly great film or TV series made about rugby – and the only person with a life story appealing enough for mainstream audiences around the world to have a film about him is Jonah [sorry Richie].
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we toss around the word ‘hero’ a little too easily these days. But in Jonah’s case, the word hero doesn’t come close to doing his memory justice.
Jonah was a hero to his family. His Tongan community. His mates. To high school teacher Chris Grinter who turned his life around at Wesley College, from street thug to schoolboy sporting superstar.
To my daughter Bex whom he inspired when she was a teenager with growing pains at our home one evening 20 years ago.
To his many rugby teammates, and coaches, who would work with him in a 16-year career that saw him play professionally in New Zealand, France, Wales – and 63 times for his beloved All Blacks for whom he scored 37 tries.
What people don’t know – or don’t fully appreciate – is that as Jonah achieved all these extraordinary achievements in rugby all the while he was dying.
Nephrotic syndrome, the kidney disease which ultimately cost him his life, was first diagnosed in 1995 right before the World Cup when Jonah burst onto the global rugby scene as a colossus who captured hearts and minds from everywhere.
The good news for us is that soon we will have a chance to remember just how great a player and how brave a man Jonah was, because the film project from 2010 is finally entering production later this year after a long battle over rights was finally settled.
Desert Road is producing the film which Steven says is ‘part When We Were
Kings part Facing Ali – and a whole lot of Jonah that people don’t know’.
Steven told me it’s no coincidence that Muhammad Ali is the role model for how he plans to give audiences a fresh take on Jonah, because Ali had literally hundreds of thousands of words written about him in his prime, as well as countless subsequent films and documentaries.
When it seemed like there was nothing more you could say about boxing’s greatest ever, Kings and Facing Ali proved otherwise.
The same challenge faces a storyteller confronting the Jonah legend.
Before his passing in 2015, Jonah had written an authorised biography, appeared in two separate TV docos with two of his wives, was the star of This Is
Your Life and participated in numerous rugby documentaries [ plus some hilarious commercials].
But none has fully captured the full achievements of the man or given audiences the definitive story on Jonah Tali Lomu. Desert Road’s film will. Just as the filmmakers behind the two Ali films found compelling fresh insight and understanding into the story of a giant of his sport – Desert Road has done the same with Jonah.
Jonah was a hero to his family. His Tongan community. His mates. To high school teacher Chris Grinter who turned his life around at Wesley College, from street thug to schoolboy sporting superstar.’
NEW TAKE The new Jonah movie should have a di erent take on the great man’s life.