As the sporting world continues to mourn the death of great All Blacks’ wing Jonah Lomu, sports fans and pundits alike have been quick to recount their memories of the man at the forefront of the evolution of rugby into the professional era. From his legendary tries on-the-field to his humbling demeanour off it, Jonah Lomu was a truly inspiring man whose death at the age of just 40 came as a devastating shock to everyone.
Ali. Bolt. Federer. Jordan. Lomu.
All names synonymous the world over with success. The legacies these men have left – and continue to leave in Bolt and Federer’s case – have had a profound effect on their sports and continue to inspire youngsters the world over to go out and express themselves through sport.
For Jonah Lomu, the defining year in a phenomenal career ironically came right at the beginning: 1995. The World Cup in South Africa would prove to be the last Rugby World Cup of the amateur era and it’s fair to say that Lomu proved to be the catalyst for the move into professionalism. Arriving alongside legends of the game such as Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke, the 20-year-old winger from Auckland was far from the star attraction in a New Zealand team crammed full with world-class players. Yet Lomu’s performances on the pitch soon changed all that. Carving and bulldozing his way through defences at will, Lomu finished the World Cup as the joint-top try-scorer in the tournament with seven tries, as New Zealand made their way to the final where they eventually lost to hosts South Africa. In what remains one of the most memorable rugby matches of all time, New Zealand swept aside England in the semi-finals beating their opponents 45-29 with Lomu almost single-handedly destroying the English defence with a breath-taking exhibition of speed and strength seeing him finish the game with four tries (a record individual haul for a semi-final). The match is also memorable for one of the most incredible tries ever seen in rugby. Receiving a loose pass from behind him, Lomu picked the ball up close to the touchline, beat two English defenders and -despite stumbling beforehand – ran straight over the top of English full-back Mike Catt before touching down for a try. Despite New Zealand failing to win the tournament, Lomu returned from South Africa as the new national hero and quickly became the star attraction in his sport. Four years later, the first Rugby World Cup of the professional era was held in Wales. Lomu returned to the World Cup, now as a proven star in another classy All Blacks side. Seemingly starting from where he left off, New Zealand’s No.11 continued to punish defences with his raw power, finishing the tournament once again as the top try-scorer this time with 8 tries, including a semi-final score against France in which at least six French players tried to bring him down, all to no avail. Although New Zealand once again came up short – losing to France in an epic semi-final – Lomu had once again reminded the world of why he was the superstar of the sport.
What made Lomu’s achievements in an All Blacks jersey all the more unbelievable was the fact that throughout his career he played with serious health problems. Diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a serious kidney disease, at the end of 1995, Lomu admitted at the end of his career that he often played despite being in pain from the illness. His international career came to an end in Cardiff in November 2002 as he played his final test match in an All Blacks jersey with New Zealand beating Wales 43-17. In 2003 Lomu was receiving dialysis three times a week, with doctors warning him that if he didn’t receive a transplant soon he would face life in a wheelchair. In 2004, a successful donor was found and Lomu had undergone a kidney transplant. A brief return to professional rugby followed in 2005, with a playing stint in Wales with the Cardiff Blues, where he scored one try in 10 appearances, before he eventually retired from professional rugby in 2007.
Jonah Lomu finished his international career with 37 tries from 63 internationals. While this was an impressive strike-rate, many players have gone on to win more caps and score more tries at international level than the legendary All Black. Yet it was Lomu’s influence on the game that makes him stand out from the rest. When Lomu burst onto the scene in 1995, the game was amateur. Twenty years later it is not uncommon to see wingers of similar mould to Lomu, such as Julian Savea and George North. Yet both Savea and North have been brought up in a professional era where future stars are identified at a young age and often spend their teenage years developing into athletes through strict training regimes and expert conditioning. In 1995, never before had the game of rugby seen a player as strong and as quick as Jonah Lomu. Standing 6ft 5in tall, weighing 19 stone and capable of running the 100m in under 11 seconds, Lomu was simply a force of nature. It was for this reason along with his wonderful try-scoring exploits, that the game quickly moved into the professional era.
As a 20-year-old rugby fan, my memories of Lomu the player have come from archive footage of those two World Cups that he lit up. Ironically, my interest in the game started around the same time as Lomu retired from international rugby. I was never fortunate enough to watch Lomu in his prime, yet as a young boy from Newport, I still vividly remember the buzz he created when joining Cardiff in 2005. Despite being only ten-years-old and with little knowledge of the game, Lomu had an aura and a presence that made me understand even then that this guy was something special. As a huge sports fan while I have never seen the likes of Ali, Jordan or Lomu in their prime years, I have been fortunate to watch Usain Bolt and Roger Federer. Two sportsmen who like the others transcend their sport through their sporting achievements and personalities. The most astonishing thing I have ever seen in sport came when Usain Bolt won Olympic gold in the 100m in 2008. A young athlete with great potential, Bolt managed to not only comfortably win his first Olympic medal that night in Beijing and break the world record, but he managed all this despite visibly slowing down before the finish, celebrating wildly by punching his chest. In awe at what I had witnessed, I imagine the same reaction for those who were there to witness Lomu’s try against England in 1995 or Ali’s knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965. These men will also be remembered for the legacies they left. Ali’s refusal to go to war in Vietnam, the resulting ban from boxing and stripping of his titles and his triumphant return to the ring to become world champion again. Bolt has in many ways saved athletics, in a sport riddled with drug cheats including some of his closest rivals in sprinting, Bolt has remained clean and like Ali his infectious charisma as a performer has kept the public entertained.
In many ways like Bolt, Jonah Lomu was the saviour of his sport. His impact at the 1995 World Cup has had a direct influence on the way the game of rugby has progressed and evolved into one of the world’s most popular sports. Without him, who knows what state the game would be in now? As a rugby fan myself, I am thankful that we have never had to contemplate the answer. Which just leaves one thing to say.Thanks Jonah.