Jonah Lomu was a sporting giant in more ways than one. Following his untimely death at the age of 40, Chris Bond looks back at how he changed the face of rugby union.
I REMEMBER watching on TV, along with millions of others, as England took to the field in Cape Town for the 1995 rugby World Cup semi-final.
A place in the final against hosts South Africa beckoned - all that stood in their way were the mighty All Blacks. Although England were the underdogs that afternoon some fans hoped that Will Carling’s men could pull off what would have been a stunning victory. Nobody, though, could have predicted what happened next.
England were swept aside by New Zealand and by one man in particular - Jonah Lomu. The 20 year-old scored four tries in a devastating display that left the England team battered and bruised - he famously bulldozed several players and ran straight over the top of full-back Mike Catt on his way to one try in the All Blacks’ emphatic 45-29 win.
Lomu went into the tournament with just two caps to his name but in a single match the Auckland-born winger changed the way rugby was played. Even though New Zealand went on to narrowly lose in the final, by the time the curtain came down on the world cup a new sporting superstar had been born.
Watching Lomu playing rugby was exhilarating and at times it was as though he’d been beamed in from another planet. Standing 6ft 5in tall and weighing nearly 18 stone, he had the imposing physical presence of a front row forward and the pace of an Olympic sprinter - the combination of which left opposing players quaking in their boots.
Jonah Lomu didn’t just change the way rugby was played, he redefined what a rugby player looked like. Twenty years ago wingers were usually small, nimble players and here was this mountain of a man who, on his day, was virtually unstoppable.
With his dark, Tintin-style quiff and giant physique he was an overnight sensation becoming one of the first, and arguably the most famous, superstars of the sport’s professional era. His impact on rugby union is hard to overstate. He almost single-handedly took the sport to another level and in doing so helped bring it to a wider audience.
He was the Usain Bolt of his day which is why his sudden death, at the age of just 40, has prompted such a wave of warm tributes.
Lomu, who scored 37 tries in 63 Test matches for the All Blacks, had suffered from health problems since his retirement from the game in 2002 due to a rare kidney disease - but the news came as a shock.
Speaking yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live, his New Zealand team-mate Zinzan Brooke said of his friend: “He could have played in any position he wanted to on the field.”
To play him on the wing was a masterstroke, unless you happened to be one of those unfortunate players tasked with trying to stop him.
“It’s amazing what he did in that ‘95 World Cup,” says Brooke. “He launched himself on the international scene and changed the way the game was played in an instant. He was very calm but you knew you had a force within the team. He was phenomenal. When you think of the World Cup you will always go back to Jonah running round or over opponents. You’ll always remember the superstar that was Jonah Lomu.”
Today, he is being mourned all over the world including by the rugby fraternity here in Yorkshire. Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington called him one of rugby’s greats. “He was a proper giant of the sport. His explosive power and pace thrilled the fans and scared his opponents in equal measure.”
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, British Lions legend and Yorkshire Carnegie chairman Sir Ian McGeechan says Lomu helped shape the sport we recognise today.
“I think he was rugby union’s first superstar. He was one of the reasons why rugby union transferred from the amateur game to the professional game in the way it did. The sport now had an image to go with it and that image was Jonah Lomu - he was the embodiment of this new global game.”
Despite being one of the most recognisable sport stars on the planet there was none of the arrogance that so often comes with such fame, and if he was a fearless competitor on the pitch he was humble off it.
“He was such an unstoppable force on the field but you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer, more unassuming person off it,” says Sir Ian.
“I don’t think he fully realised the impact he had on the sport. He got people interested in the game who hadn’t watched rugby before, but they came to see him and the way he way he played. We’ve got a lot to thank him for. He was a role model for youngsters and encouraged people to become interested in rugby.”
Doncaster Knights director of rugby Clive Griffiths also has nothing but praise for Lomu. “The word legend is used opportunistically but this guy was incredible. When I saw him play I just watched in awe. There aren’t enough adjectives to do the man justice.”
It wasn’t just his size and his pace and power that set him apart says Griffiths. “As a defence coach he was a nightmare. You had to put two men on him because one on one he was devastating.”
Sometimes two, or even three players weren’t enough to stop Lomu in full flight. Not that he was a simple human battering ram. Like all great sportsmen and women he knew how to make the most of his physical attributes.
He knew when to run and when to pass, in the same way that tennis star Roger Federer knows which shot to play at the crucial moment in a match.
“Lomu scored tries from every angle,” says Griffiths. “Yes, he had the physicality and the pace but other players have that, he just took them to their full capacity. We talk about high impact players and high impact running and game-changers, well that was Jonah Lomu.”
It wasn’t just commentators and rugby fans who were dazzled by him. Lomu, like all genuine sporting icons, piqued the interest of men and women who had never shown an interest in rugby before.
“When you saw players scoring a good try you applauded them, but when you saw Lomu score a great try you wanted to see it again because you couldn’t quite believe what you were seeing.”
He was not only a giant of a man but a bona fide superstar who blazed a trail through the sporting firmament that sadly proved all too brief.
But although his career, and his life, were cut short, Griffiths believes that Lomu will live long in the memory as one of the sporting greats. “I met him at a function in London and what a gent he was. It was like talking to someone you’ve known your whole life, it was like being with a member of your own family.
“That was the man - he was a great player with real humility and he’s left a legacy and memory that will never die.”