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Jonah Lomu: My childhood hero stayed affable and humble to end

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By Jonathan Bradley

Whoever said you should never meet your childhood heroes clearly hadn't had the pleasure of an interaction with Jonah Lomu.

As Ireland prepared to face Romania at Wembley Stadium back in September, I found myself with the rarest of commodities at a World Cup, some free time.

With the captain's run taken care of early in the day, and three eagerly anticipated pool clashes in the afternoon, I decided to head to Olympic Park to watch the games on the big screen with a few friends.

At half-time of the first there were double-takes all round us as, from the side of stage, arguably the most famous All Black of them all emerged.

Even dressed in a loose fitting grey shirt and shifting from foot to foot as he clocked the attention coming his way, there was just something about the most feared player of his generation.

Years of ill health had clearly diminished his physical presence - he was no longer the imposing man mountain capable of rendering opposition tacklers as nothing more than speed bumps on his way to the line - but the aura remained.

Hundreds of fans gathered as what was meant to be a quick signing session at half-time stretched long into the moments after Italy and Canada had resumed play.

All too happy to stop and chat with those that approached him, it was his persistently amenable nature that saw him, despite an ever increasing line of autograph hunters snaked around the vicinity, proclaiming his hope to this paper that Ireland, where his wife had family ties, would meet his native New Zealand in the final.

Such a request would have been easy to dismiss - rugby players in this part of the world are generally an easy bunch to deal with but much lesser figures in the global game have rejected such off-the-cuff encounters unless explicitly obligated - but not for Lomu.

For someone who had changed the game, and given such memories to so many, humility and humbleness remained a constant and such stories are hardly isolated.

His generosity to teammates and patience with star-struck fans has been well documented over the years and there is many an Ulster fan now in their 20s that cherishes the memory of a childhood encounter with the great man when New Zealand trained at Shaw's Bridge in Belfast during their tour of Britain and Ireland in 2001.

To see it endure after all this time though, really was quite something.

Tragically in a recent interview, and at just 40 years of age, he spoke of how he only wished to live long enough to see his two young sons (Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5,) reach their 21st birthdays.

It wasn't to be. The man may be gone; his legend will persist as long as the game is played.

Belfast Telegraph

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