Like many others in New Zealand, I first became aware of Jonah when he played for Wesley College in the national secondary schools sevens tournament in 1993. He was 17 then, captain of the team and already a sensational schoolboy player because of his size and power and speed.
Within two years, he was a sensational player at the international level as well, after being converted from a loose forward to the left wing. That transition had been encouraged by Gordon Tietjens (who had Jonah in the New Zealand Sevens team) and by Laurie Mains and Earle Kirton, the All Blacks coach and assistant coach at that time.
So he was already a superstar when I had a chance for a good talk with him in 2000. But we didn’t just talk football. I saw a parallel between the decision my parents had made and the course of action that Jonah’s mum, Hepi, had taken. In our case, Winnie (my sister) and I were told by our parents that they chose to come to New Zealand from Samoa so that we’d be born here and would never have any immigration issues.
And Hepi, already pregnant with Jonah, had left Tonga for the same reason — to see that he’d be born in New Zealand (as he was on May 12, 1975) and would never have any hassles with immigration. I could see that it was a deliberate and brave move by her. So I pointed that out to Jonah. And I drew his attention to something he was too young to be aware of — that, from the mid-1970s and on into the 1980s, these were dark days for New Zealand.
That was the time of the Dawn Raids under the Muldoon government when the police rounded up Pacific Island overstayers and sent them packing. That, as I told Jonah, came about because New Zealand factories were no longer in need of the workforce they’d earlier been welcoming from the Pacific. It was an ugly period in our history and one that I was familiar with because I was a cop back then.
I’ve never met Hepi. But I’ve thought about her a lot. And I watched the way she carried herself throughout the farewells to her famous son. Devastated, naturally, at losing him. But with a dignity that reflected the strength she had 40 years earlier when she decided to make the move to New Zealand.
Given the impact made by Jonah, what a decision that was. Of course, in the farewells to him, much was made of his incomparable combination of strength, speed and skill as an international rugby player — and of his humility, gentleness and kindness off the field.
But there was another aspect. And that was the part he played, unknowingly, in prompting major changes in the professionalism of the game. The story very much involves an ambitious Aussie, Rupert Murdoch, and the international media empire he was building.
In the course of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, Rupert, in his Los Angeles office, could see the impact Jonah was making. Not just on Jonah’s trampled and traumatised opponents but on an adoring public too. So the media mogul set the wheels in motion immediately and soon there was a $70 million broadcasting deal that is now 10 times as big and has revolutionised professional rugby. That’s one aspect of the Jonah legacy that maybe hasn’t had the attention it deserves.
But, in many ways, the appeal of Jonah has more to do with simple, down-to-earth situations. For instance, there’s a story that Earle Kirton told me about Laurie Mains, the first All Black coach to pick Jonah for our national team. He was also the first All Black coach to drop him because Jonah, menacing as he was on attack, could sometimes get in a tangle on defence.
Laurie was a builder in Dunedin. And there he was up on a roof when a bunch of Pākehā kids, on their way home from school, called out to him.
“Hey mister. Why did you drop Jonah?”
Laurie gave the standard answer about there being plenty of competition and lots of good wings. Then, a day later, he’s on a roof in another part of Dunedin and the same thing happened when other kids were heading home from school.
This group of kids also go: “Hey mister. Why did you drop Jonah?”
Laurie was taken aback by this. He hadn’t realised what people were seeing in Jonah — and what an impact he was making on the rugby public. So he went straight home and rang Earle and said: “I think I might’ve made a mistake.” And that was the beginning of Jonah coming back into the system.
Earle said you need to appreciate the context of all this. Here was Laurie in the deep south, in a white middle-class society which didn’t have much direct contact — and wasn’t familiar, first-hand — with the kind of players coming out of South Auckland. Yet they couldn’t get enough of Jonah. And Laurie had never struck that response or that situation before.
There’s another development to that story too — one which shows something of the respect that Jonah and Laurie had for each other. I got the chance to interview Laurie some years later, and I mentioned that, a couple of weeks before, I’d asked Jonah who his favourite All Black coach had been.
Now, as we all know, Laurie tends not to display a lot of emotion. He’s impassive. A stoic. And, true to form, he didn’t show a lot of interest. Just a casual: “Oh yeah, what did he say?”
And I told him this: “Jonah said you were. He told me you were his favourite All Black coach.”
That stopped Laurie in his tracks. He still looked fairly impassive. But he was clearly very appreciative of the compliment. In fact, he asked for the interview to be stopped for a while. For the camera to have a breather. For the camera lights to be turned off, too.
I noticed a tear in his eye. And he said: “Ken, did he really say that?”
You don’t get them much tougher than Laurie. He’s dealt with tough nuts and prima donnas and every kind of footballer in between. But here he was deeply moved by Jonah’s view of him. Just one more indication of how special Jonah was.