Remembering Jonah: ‘He was just like a son’

Date published: November 16 2016

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Phil Kingsley Jones, Jonah Lomu’s manager for nine years, sits down with Planet Rugby to remember the great man a year on since he passed away.

Phil Kingsley Jones still talks about Jonah Lomu in the present tense, as if at any moment the giant might lumber into his living room, or come hurtling down his street behind the wheel of a roaring four-by-four.

Twelve months have passed since Lomu’s death; the former All Black winger and sporting phenomenon felled at the almost unfathomable age of 40.

They are months in which Kingsley Jones has undergone bouts of introspection.

In Lomu’s final years, the pair – once inseparable – had not spoken, a dispute over payment for a magazine article driving a wedge between manager and player, companion and cohort, surrogate father and adopted son.

It was a rift that neither was able or perhaps in Lomu’s case willing to bridge, but it seems a nonetheless trivial spat in the context of their unique relationship.

The two converged decades ago. Kingsley Jones, a squat Welshman coaching at Counties Manukau; Lomu a teenage wrecking ball, a gargantuan specimen even then at 14.

“I just saw it all coming,” Kingsley Jones recalls. “I knew he’d be special, but nobody could’ve predicted he’d be that good. He used to play eight or lock for us at Counties or at Wesley College, his school.

“When he got older, we had a very good Counties back row, so I said to the coach, why don’t you put him on the wing?

“He said, ‘Can he play on the wing?’ Well, a mad nineteen-stone giant can sleep where he likes – he can play anywhere. He played four games and he was in the All Blacks.”

Lomu’s turbulent youth is well-documented. His father was a drinker, capricious and at times violent with it.

When the hulking schoolboy decided he’d suppressed his retaliation long enough, and flexed his own considerable muscles, he was banished from the family home.

Almost organically, Kingsley Jones evolved into a paternal figure.

“He’d get in my little rickety Japanese imported car and we’d drive to games together,” he recalls. “I’d have some music on and he’d jump in the car and put his boom-boom-boom on.

“Cars and music were his big passions. Then the closer relationship we had, he’d stay at my house a lot. He was just like a son. He got on great with my daughters; he was just part of the family.

“He was a cheeky bugger. He was very respectful in front of adults, but with his mates, he was cheeky and wicked. He had a beautiful sense of humour and personality.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 20: Will the real Jonah Lomu take a step forward. All Black winger Jonah Lomu,left wife Tanya Lomu and manager rPhil Kingsley Jones come face to face with a wax portrait of Jonah made to feature in Madame Tussaud's exhibition in Melbourne.The wax portrait of Lomu rwas unveiled to the public at Eden Park, Monday. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 20: Will the real Jonah Lomu take a step forward. All Black winger Jonah Lomu, wife Tanya Lomu and manager Phil Kingsley Jones come face to face with a wax portrait of Jonah made to feature in Madame Tussaud’s exhibition in Melbourne.The wax portrait of Lomu rwas unveiled to the public at Eden Park, Monday. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

As rugby inexorably toppled into professionalism in 1995, Kingsley Jones came into his own. He’d already helped Lomu land a gig in an Auckland bank, painstakingly rehearsing for the job interview, and their relationship was based on unity and trust – they never signed a formal contract.

Frankly, though, you didn’t need to market Lomu the rampaging superstar, the behemoth who seized the sport in his engulfing grasp, reduced teak-tough defenders to kindling and captivated a generation.

But you had to refine the shy Polynesian upstart.

“It was all flying in the wind,” says Kingsley Jones. “We started our own company, Number 11 management, and I employed his mum and dad, and my daughter.

“It was very close; he didn’t want anybody knowing his business. He hated agents and managers and PR people – I had to be the PR person, the human resources person, I had to do it all.

“I used to be a professional stand-up comedian in the UK, so I had an idea about agents and managers and the crap they tell people.

“I would talk street-level language to these people. You’re going to give us how much? You want to do what? Why do you want to do that? You want him to smash into people?

“Nah, we’re not trying to turn him into a monster, that’s what he does on the rugby field.”

On the field, Lomu flourished. The youngest-ever All Black was a devastating trailblazer – he drew crowds the world over and his colossal impact on rugby will not be replicated.

Off it, Kingsley Jones too was in his element as savvy operator and mischievous raconteur.

The two of them infuriated then-All Blacks head coach John Hart by leaving Lomu’s sponsored TVR parked in front of the Pennyhill Park hotel during the 1999 World Cup. New Zealand, at the time, were sponsored by Ford.

UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 09: All Blacks Carl Hoeft and Andrew Mehrtens with Phil KingsleyJones, Jonah Lomu's manager look over Lomu's TVR sports car parked at the Pennyhill Country Club, Bagshot, Friday, base for the teams Rugby World Cup camp. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 09: All Blacks Carl Hoeft and Andrew Mehrtens with Phil KingsleyJones, Jonah Lomu’s manager look over Lomu’s TVR sports car parked at the Pennyhill Country Club, Bagshot, Friday, base for the teams Rugby World Cup camp. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

Lomu was instantly recognisable and universally adored. En route to a Miss World contest in the Seychelles, the pair were waylaid at Heathrow by the throng of people clamouring for pictures and autographs.

“I was a bloody old man by then,” laughs Kingsley Jones. “He said, you run to the gate, and I’ll carry the bags. He had four bags in his hands and round his neck and off we went. I suppose it was easily a mile.

“I got there first, and the person at the door said, you’re lucky, you can come in, but we can’t load your bags.

“I said, well tell this fella then, will you? He comes round the corner with bags all over him, sweating, and the guys says, ‘Oh my god, it’s Jonah Lomu! Open the hatch, open the hatch!’

“Another time, we were driving up from London to Leicester, and we’d been given a black Mercedes, like you’d see in the gangster films.

“Jonah wore a beanie hat and a black t-shirt. I’m sleeping in the front, and he’s driving. All of a sudden, he wakes me up – Phil, Phil, it’s the police.

“The police had come in the opposite direction, seen this black fella with a big black hat, turned the car round and followed us. They put the lights on and pulled us over.

“I said, just act normal, act normal. This policeman came up, leaned in the car, and went, ‘Oh my god, it’s Jonah Lomu.’

“So him and his mate come up and get photographs taken with Jonah and he’s on the bloody radio back to the Police station talking to everybody.

“He didn’t believe he was that big. He didn’t believe we couldn’t go down to the pub – he didn’t drink but he’d let me have a pint and he’d have an orange juice.

“He’d say, let’s go down the pub, and I’d say, don’t be an idiot, man. We’d get chased out the pub.”

And Kingsley Jones was there when the juggernaut was felled by nephrotic syndrome, a debilitating kidney condition that the Welshman says “was like tying a sledge to his back”.

“When he was first diagnosed, his first wife Tanya was there – she cared for him in the night, and I was there in the daytime,” he says.

“I was reassuring him: you’ll be fine, you’ll get back playing, even if it’s only for your club, don’t worry about that, don’t worry about the money.

“He had a beautiful brand new house on an artificial pond with ducks, so I’d stay with him, and he bought these bikes for me and him to ride on.

“But of course he couldn’t ride very fast, so we’d be at a crawling pace. Have you ever tried riding a bike at a crawling pace? You can’t keep your balance.

“And the silly bugger bought bikes with racing pedals, so you can’t get your foot out. I fell off it three times on the first ride; I was in a terrible state.

“He started to get better, and he bought a bloody jet ski, and he had a beautiful estuary outside his place.

“One day he said, ‘Come on, come with me and we’ll go and ride the jet ski.’ He had a wetsuit on, I had a bloody t-shirt and jeans. He said, just hang on.

“So I hung on the back of him – he was pretty bloody big, I could only just get my arms around him.

“We’re up this river, and he’s going and going, and I’m complaining at how fast he’s going, and I did a bloody back-flip off the back of it, because I couldn’t hang on to the wetsuit.

“Oh, he thought that was hilarious. We used to get up to things like that; we used to go shopping at 3am because there were less people about. And he never, ever refused an autograph.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 14: All Black Jonah Lomu, centre, announces his continuation of his New Zealand Rugby Union contract for two years on his return from the Rugby World Cup at Auckland Airport, Sunday. He is flanked by his manager Phil KingsleyJones, left and NZRFU CEO David Rutherford. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 14: All Black Jonah Lomu, centre, announces his continuation of his New Zealand Rugby Union contract for two years on his return from the Rugby World Cup at Auckland Airport, Sunday. He is flanked by his manager Phil Kingsley Jones, left and NZRFU CEO David Rutherford. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

There was mischief and there was mayhem, cherished moments even amid the dark periods of Lomu’s dialysis and self-doubt.

The “odd couple”, though, would eventually suffer an unsavoury divorce.

A fee for an article in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly about Lomu’s relationship with future wife Fiona was paid directly to Kingsley Jones, not their company.

The ex-manager maintains the fee was modest, and says he was told Lomu himself contributed nothing to the piece he’d set-up.

It was years before Lomu realised where the money had gone, but it appears he deemed it an irrevocable breach of trust.

“Of course I regret it,” says Kingsley Jones. “I regretted it at the time, but I couldn’t do anything about it.

“There were a couple of times we talked about having a coffee and he wouldn’t turn up. He wouldn’t tell me to my face, he was very respectful, but I could tell I wasn’t wanted, so I just slunk into the background and let him carry on.

“His wife painted it blacker than it was, and handed it down to his next wife, and now they’ve found out it’s not true – it was all he said, I said.”

It stung Kingsley Jones that he was scarcely mentioned at Lomu’s funeral. It was only in the months that followed his old friend’s death that those wounds were dressed.

This weekend, reunited with Lomu’s mother and family, his pals from Wesley College and team-mates from Counties, Kingsley Jones has been invited to light a lantern in memory of the boy he knew, and the man he became.

“Wesley College are raising a flagpole for him on Saturday, holding a memorial and playing their old arch rivals,” he says.

“I don’t think people realise how close we were. And I remember more being with him, the fun we’d have.

“I don’t want to play it up too much about the funeral, but it did hurt me that I was not given any recognition, because everybody knows I was there right from the beginning.

“It wasn’t just Jonah, it was me and Jonah. He did it on the field, I did it off it.”

by Jamie Lyall

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