It was 1992, when Jonah Lomu – just 17 years old – got his first taste of international competition at the Raro International Sevens.
Lomu died in 2015. But his friend and former New Zealand Sevens skipper Eric Rush says Lomu loved this place and its people.
“He always talked about this place being the place where it all started because he made his international debut here,” Rush says.
“He was young, only 17 or 18 when he made his international debut at the Raro Sevens.
“I think he didn’t play well in the first game and he didn’t want to play any more, he said ‘it’s too hot for me’. But he just got better and better. By the end of the tournament he was the main player.”
Amene Rangi, one of the founders of the Cook Islands International Sevens, first saw Lomu playing for the Wesley College Sevens team in Auckland.
Rangi contacted Rush and asked him to bring Lomu over for the tournament here.
Lomu featured for the Sheraton team in the 1994 tournament and wowed the local rugby lovers with his size and speed.
“Everyone was thrilled over his performance. We had never seen a coconut tree run like that,” Rangi earlier said.
Cook Islands Rugby Union development manager Ben Koteka, who also played for Sheraton, had his first encounter with Lomu at the 1994 event.
“He was such a freak! He would get off the jeep and run around the field even without any warm-up. He was an amazing rugby player and Cook Islands is blessed to witness his talent,” Koteka says.
Lomu played with Rush and Peter Woods in his debut year. He never lost a game in that tournament but finished fifth!
Sheraton played Police, which had Sevens wizard Waisale Serevi, in the quarter-final and won. But the match was awarded to Police after Sheraton fielded eight players.
Police player Walter Henry said: “When they realised they had eight players on the field it was too late for the coach and team manager to rectify.
“So Harry Ivaiti cited Sheraton and reported it to match officials. Match officials agreed with Harry and therefore disqualified Sheraton.”
His brilliant performance at the Raro Sevens did not go unnoticed. He made his debut for New Zealand in the Hong Kong Sevens the same year, and the rest is history.
Lomu passed away unexpectedly in 2015, aged 40. But rugby lovers here and abroad still remember him as one of the greatest in the sport.