Jonah Lomu mini-series brings to light the stories behind the rugby legend

Portraying one of New Zealand's most beloved sportsman comes with great pressure, but Mosese Veaila shines on screen as Jonah Lomu.

The 21-year-old Tongan was tasked with filling very big shoes, bringing to life the journey of Lomu from teenage gang prospect to rugby's first global superstar in Three's two-part mini-series Jonah.

Veaila admits the role was a daunting one, but once he dived into who Lomu was away from the camera, he realised he was just a Polynesian youngster with extraordinary athletic ability.

"Jonah was just another kid from south Auckland," Veaila told Newshub.

"Just like any of us, he grew up playing rugby, playing with his friends, went to school, went to church - he just did normal, everyday things. 

"I think it’s easy for us to think people like Jonah are so great and that they were great from the start, but he was a regular person - just like me, really."

Mosese Veaila as Jonah in his latter years.
Mosese Veaila as Jonah in his latter years. Photo credit: Supplied

Casting Jonah Lomu
 

The decision to cast the role of the All Black great came with its own set of pressures.

Co-writer Pip Hall knew very early on that getting that right would be key in being able to tell the life story of Lomu.

Speaking to Newshub, Hall said the second she saw Veaila she knew they had their star.

"When we were writing it, we were worried about how we were going to cast the role, given how big the shoes were that he had to fill.

"But once he [Veaila] came in and did a screen test, we knew he was absolutely perfect.

"Once we had him locked in, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief, because he embodies Jonah in so many ways and we were very lucky to have him."

The mini-series sheds light on some uncomfortable truths that the average fan of rugby either wasn't aware of or simply didn't care about.

Lomu lived his life in the public eye from the moment he steamrolled Mike Catt in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final against England. His relationship status was of public concern, as was his health and off-field dramas.

That is on full display during both episodes, as the breakdown of Lomu's first two marriages, his business spat with mentor Phil Kingsley-Jones and a few moments of madness in public give the viewer insight into the pressure of being Jonah Lomu. 

Hall said Lomu faced tremendous challenges in his personal life, but it was important for her as a writer not to judge his off-field decisions. 

"Quite early on we knew it wasn't going to be a rugby story," said Hall.  

"As a writer, I was interested in what it was like just to be Jonah Lomu. We decided that we were going to tell the story behind what we all saw of Jonah on the field. 

"We wanted to establish some highlight points of his life and drill into those moments. 

"It's not my place as a writer to judge the characters of the people I'm writing about - that's up to the audience to decide what they thought of his choices. 

"I think he was a pretty cool guy who led a very public life and he made the best choices in life that he could."

Important relationships
 

Lomu's relationship with Kingsley-Jones is a focal point of the mini-series, as is his friendship with All Blacks doctor John 'Doc' Mayhew.

Mayhew, who was the medical head of the All Blacks during the 1995 World Cup under Laurie Mains and throughout John Hart's four-year reign, guided Lomu through his many medical battles and became a confidant and close friend of the 63-test veteran. 

The famous No.11 jersey.
The famous No.11 jersey. Photo credit: Supplied

That relationship was arguably the most significant of Lomu's life, and Mayhew himself played a key role in the writers being able to tell that story with credibility.

"Doc Mayhew was incredibly generous with Jonah and he was just as generous with us in terms of sharing some pretty private details about that relationship," said Hall.  

"They clearly had a relationship that developed past that doctor-patient level, which is very interesting.

"John was very forthcoming with information and he was very useful from my standpoint as he was able to sit down with me and go through the medical history and what each individual moment meant, and how it impacted on Jonah's life.  

"He was wonderful to work with."

Hall also worked closely with Kingsley-Jones during the research phase of production. The Welshman was critical to Lomu's early success as a rugby player, managing the towering try-scoring machine from his high school days at Wesley College, through to his success on the international stage.

That relationship came to a head in 2004 when Lomu and his wife at the time, Fiona, formed their own management company, effectively pushing Kingsley-Jones out.

Hall told Newshub that Kingsley-Jones was very open about how quickly his friendship soured with the former rugby great. 

"I think he carries a lot of regret about how the relationship ended," she said.

"It was important as filmmakers that we didn't take a side, so we did a lot of research on how that all played out and tried to play it down the middle, without leaning one way."

Did it do Lomu justice?
 

With the hard work done, a reflective Hall is confident they did Lomu justice, but she admits to nervousness knowing how passionate New Zealanders are about the man who made the No.11 jersey famous.

Craig Hall plays John 'Doc ' Mayhew.
Craig Hall plays John 'Doc ' Mayhew. Photo credit: Supplied

"It's certainly a massive privilege and responsibility to tell this story," she said.

"It's the biggest story I have ever written and I am nervous, because every Kiwi has a Jonah story and rugby is so entrenched in people's everyday life. 

"It's a heavy mantle, but I feel like we did a pretty good job of telling his story and maintain that respect of what the All Blacks jersey means to New Zealanders."

Jonah screens on Sunday, August 18, and Monday, August 19, on Three.

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