Jonah Lomu praised as a trailblazer for Polynesian athletes

AUCKLAND, 20 NOVEMBER 2015 (STUFF NZ) ----Jonah Lomu's impact was felt around the world but arguably nowhere was it more important than in the Pacific Islands, where he inspired a generation of Polynesian athletes.

Lomu, who died on Wednesday aged 40, was a New Zealand rugby hero but his Tongan heritage meant he was equally adored - if not more - throughout Polynesia.

New Zealand netball star Maria Tutaia, who is of Samoan origin, is one of those who was inspired by the champion All Black.

She says he was on the same level of fellow Samoan, professional wrestler turned Hollywood star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, in the Pacific and proved that anyone can make it on the world stage - even those from small islands in the South Pacific.

"There's not many Pacific Islanders who are world renowned, I guess the other one I can think of is The Rock who's broken through leaps and bounds throughout countries all over the world," Tutaia said. "He definitely has paved the way, that it is possible."

 

Tutaia made her debut for the Silver Ferns in 2005 and has gone on to be the leader of the New Zealand attack.

 

Netball and rugby may be completely different sports but the 28-year-old says she even tried to model her game on Lomu - such was his influence on young athletes striving to make it at the highest level.

"I've always looked up to him and really admired the way he just nailed every opposition that he came he up against on the field," she said. "You felt extremely sorry for whoever he was running into and I guess his persona on and off the field is something for myself that I definitely admired and would love to showcase on the netball court."

Former Kiwis centre Nigel Vagana is the same age as the blockbusting winger and recalls playing league against him with his cousin, fellow New Zealand representative Joe, as a teenager in Auckland before Lomu went on to rugby stardom.

He says watching Lomu hit such heights with the All Blacks spurred him on to do likewise in the 13-man code.

"He inspired us across the levels and it allowed us to share in the success of our fellow Polynesian athletes regardless of what environment they were in," said Vagana, who played a total of 260 NRL games.

But it was with the next generation where his influence was most significant, with Vagana saying he gave Polynesian athletes "the belief that they could take on the world".

"You think of him sitting in the stands next to David Beckham watching a game over in Europe through the adidas sponsorship and you think 'this guy's on level with him but he's not too much different to what we came from and what we did growing up. So if he can do it why can't I?'"

Vagana now works with a lot of aspiring Pacific Island athletes through his role as player education and wellbeing manager at the NRL.

One of the key areas he focuses on is what players do off the field and capitalising on the opportunities available in professional sport.

And in Lomu he has the perfect example of who to follow.

"If you're only going to be remembered for stuff on the field then you've got a limited life expectancy," Vagana added. "So I try and touch on guys like Lomu, who was tremendous on the field but off the field had done just as much so his legacy is through the roof.

"It's also through the roof because of the opportunities that presented for him and how he made the most of it."....PACNEWS




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