To put into words the impact Jonah Lomu, who tragically passed away at midnight on Wednesday evening, had on rugby is as almost as impossible a task as tackling him seemed to be. When he exploded onto the world rugby stage during the 1995 World Cup, shortly after becoming the youngest ever All Black (at the age 19 years and 45 days), the rugby world knew that a very special player had arisen. Yet Lomu was more than a great player. It was his size (he came in at 6’5” and weighed well over 120 Kgs) that gave him enormous strength. However when this was combined with his paradoxically incredible speed (he clocked in a personal best well under 11 seconds) and a lithe athleticism, that would shame a ballet dancer, he became a player apart. He broke tackles seemingly at will, screamed past covering defenders and simply swept all before him. His jaw dropping skill and star quality captured the imagination of millions around the world, turning him into rugby’s first true superstar and creating an unrivalled sporting legacy.
Born in South Auckland in 1975 to Tongan parents it is no small miracle that Jonah ever made it to rugby. Growing up, in his words, “on the streets” he endured a tough childhood and it was only when he enrolled at the prestigious Wesley College that his sporting talent truly came to the fore. Playing originally as a flanker, before switching to the wing, Lomu was soon spotted as a potential 7s talent and in 1994 made waves during the Hong Kong Tournament. Then came his All Blacks debut against France and despite a relatively quiet start to his career, he was selected for 1995 World Cup and it was there that he came so spectacularly into his own. He scored his first two tries against Ireland, added another against Scotland and then there was his performance in the semi-final against England. It left commentators speechless, England broken in his wake, and with his quartet of tries it left Jonah at the very top of world rugby. No moment better defines Lomu than that barnstorming try when he picked up the loose ball, smashed off Tony Underwood and then simply trampled over Mike Catt to go for the line. World Cup glory would ultimately belong to South Africa that year but no one could deny that Lomu was player of the tournament, and in 1996 his seemingly unstoppable flight to the top continued with tremendous performances against Australia and South Africa.
Then it all went wrong. At the end of 1996 the pain that had been plaguing him even during his world cup glory was diagnosed as Nephrotic Syndrome; a devastating kidney disease with a depressing prognosis even for someone not constantly pushing their body to the limit. Lomu made only a handful of appearances for the All Blacks and his beloved Counties Manukau provincial side in 1997 and when he publically admitted to the disease it seemed to everyone that his career was already over. Everyone that is, except for Jonah. Even with two ailing kidneys, Lomu fought his way back into rugby, it started with winning gold in Rugby 7s at the 1998 Commonwealth Games before he made his return to the All Blacks and to the World Cup. His opening game against Tonga dazzled the sell-out crowd in Bristol (including your humble correspondent then aged just four) and showed that the great man was back to his best. His form continued unabated against each team he played, including against France in the now infamous semi-final where he showed his class, scoring two tries, and sportsmanship, remaining on the field to congratulate the victorious French.
He would continue to play for the All Blacks at the beginning of the millennium, most famously scoring the winning try against Australia in the aptly named “greatest game of rugby ever played”, but ravaged by his illness and beginning to require regular dialysis his international career finally came to an end in 2002 when he was only 27. A lifesaving kidney transplant in 2004 sparked hopes of a comeback but that never materialised and in 2007 he ended his rugby career to focus on becoming an ambassador for the sport he loved. Even in this role he achieved greatness, being part of a delegation that successfully pushed for Rugby 7s to become an Olympic sport, and his appearance during the opening ceremony of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand sealed his status as one of the sport’s greatest heroes. Few people knew at the time of this momentous occasion that his body had rejected the transplanted kidney and for four years he struggled through intensive dialysis while maintaining on the surface a positive disposition. This autumn he brought his family to England to watch the All Blacks (including Richie McCaw who had played his first games for New Zealand alongside Lomu) triumph and continued to be an ambassador for the sport. His death came tragically suddenly; only a few days after returning to New Zealand he suffered a fatal heart attack, his body having finally succumbed to the strain of so many years of intensive medical struggles. He is survived by his wife Nadine and his two sons aged five and six. A few months before he died Lomu had said he hoped to see both boys turn 21 and although this will sadly no longer be the case there can be no doubt that they will grow up knowing that their father was a truly incredible human being.
There have been players who have played more games, there have been players who have scored more tries but no player has ever had, and probably will ever have, the ability to make such an important impact on any sport. Were it not for Lomu there is no doubt that rugby would be in a significantly lesser state than it is now. Rupert Murdoch has said that it was Lomu’s dazzling performance in 1995 that persuaded him to sign a deal to regularly broadcast rugby matches, seeing in Lomu an entertainment factor that could draw audiences across the globe. This deal gave the South African, Australian and New Zealand rugby unions the money and impetus they needed to make rugby within their unions professional and jump start the glorious professional era of Rugby Union. Without Lomu there would be no rugby championship, no autumn internationals nor Super XV and it is unlikely that rugby would have the significance it has for many today. It is almost terrifying to imagine (as he himself joked on many occasions) what Lomu could have achieved if it wasn’t for his illness. To play 73 matches, including 63 tests, for the All Blacks on top of games for the barbarians and others as well as scoring 37 international tries is itself outstanding but to do it in only eight years and hampered by illness shows greatness on a truly undefinable level. It says much that his records for most tries scored in one World Cup tournament and most World Cup tries scored overall have yet to be bested despite the efforts of many very talented players. Lomu will stand for all time as one of the pantheons of sporting gods yet even his acclaim on the field is humbled by his acclaim off it. He was known as the big man with the bigger heart and players from across the globe, those who played both with him and against him, have paid tribute to a man who showed unbelievable sportsmanship and kindness to those around him. Players he often swatted aside or crunched underfoot have remembered him with great fondness and have paid tribute to a very special, yet very humble man and this is what makes Lomu truly standout. He might have been a spectacle of speed, skill and strength yet he was no showman. He did what he did not out of a desire to be a performer but for the sheer joy of the game matched with his own unbelievable skill. There will never be anyone who will be able to create the same sense of wonder as Lomu did simply by being himself. The world is poorer for his passing but the rugby in heaven just got so much better.