In Greek mythology it is recorded that Achilles was given the choice by the gods: a long, boring existence or a brief but brilliant life. Achilles chose the “crowded hour” of glorious life. Jonah Lomu, a Tongan-New Zealander who changed the way rugby is played, was a modern Achilles.
For the rugby world now and into the future, he will be forever young.
At age 40 when he died, his rugby exploits are still close enough in our memories that they will be remembered by those of us of a certain age for the rest of our lives.
And for those who were not around to watch the 1995 RWC tournament where Lomu burst into the consciousness of the rugby world there is the magic recall of video highlights.
The defining highlight, arguably the greatest run in rugby history, came in the 1995 RWC semi-final between New Zealand and England. This was a smashing, swerving and thunderous explosion of pumping thighs and dynamic intent that culminated in Mike Catt, the last defender, being clattered like an empty tin being over-run by a tank, as Lomu burst through and then smashed the ball down over the line for a try.
This was the try that saved rugby as an international sport.
The semi-final played was on 18 June 1995 at Cape Town. Rupert Murdoch was watching the game on television in his Los Angeles office. England winger Tony Underwood had winked at Lomu at the end of the haka. Lomu was furious, and from the kick-off, when the ball was kicked across to his side of the field for him to regain, he ran over, ran through, and ran past terrified England defenders.
“Who is that player?” an entranced Murdoch asked.
“Jonah Lomu,” one of his executives replied.
“We must have him, we must have him,” Murdoch murmured.
The bewitchment of Murdoch by the Lomu spectacle occurred at a critical time for the entrepreneur and the rugby game. The Super League war inspired by Murdoch was raging. Beleaguered league officials had decreed that any rugby player enticed across to their code would cost the league clubs nothing in terms of salary caps.
League could have stolen a generation of great rugby players.
So taken was Murdoch with the potential of rugby as a worldwide sports product with blazing stars like Lomu and international tournaments like the Rugby World Cup that he negotiated a ten-year deal for $70 million a year with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia for the television rights to all their rugby matches – with a new tournament, the Super 12, to be a subscription leader for Fox Sports, his pay television channel in Australia.
The impact of Jonah Lomu changed rugby profoundly, on and off the field. He may well be the most important player in the history of rugby because of this.
He was rugby’s first international super star. The publisher of The Roar, Zac Zavos, remembers being in Spain during Lomu’s heyday and seeing a huge cut-out of him outside a McDonald’s outlet in Barcelona.
The effect of a massive but speedy winger, the size of a second-rower with the pace of a sprint champion, changed the dynamics of rugby. In a sense, his presence widened the field. Instead of wingers being shoved into touch. The power of Lomu in shrugging off tackles meant that the full width of the field could now be used.
In the last minutes of the Greatest Test Of All in 2000, at Sydney’s Olympic Park, Lomu scored the winning try for the All Blacks by skirting down the touch line and evading the covering tackle of the deadly defender, Stephen Larkham.
Like so many other defenders, he had been “Lomued.”
Only a winger of immense power, great speed, superb balance and stability in any running situation could have scored that try.
It was qualities like these that prompted the NZ Herald’s veteran rugby writer Wynn Gray to nominate Jonah Lomu as his all-time All Black great player only a couple of years ago. And other rugby writers labelled Lomu, correctly in my opinion, as the Rugby World Cup’s “greatest player… rugby’s version of Muhammed Ali, a heavyweight with a global reach.”
The Murdoch intervention that was a result of Lomu’s charisma forced the IRB to declare in 1996, 100 years after the professional Northern League breakaway, that rugby was – finally – a professional game.
Lomu took up rugby when his uncle was killed, decapitated, by a rival gang member in Manukau City, a tough part of Auckland. He was so big, even as a youngster, he had to jog beside the family car as it was driven by his father, with the rest of the family inside, on their way to Sunday church.
At Wesley College, where he won a sports scholarship, he starred as a rugby player in winter. In summer he used to win athletic tournaments by himself for his college, with numerous gold medals in the power events and the sprints.
This combination of power and speed was first seen in Sydney when a New Zealand Schools side narrowly defeated an Australian Schools side. Lomu, playing at number 8, dominated the middle of field with his barging runs. The Australian schoolboys (including Matt Burke) tried to stop him by hanging on to him like ineffective Lilliputians trying to stop a rampaging Gulliver.
Not long after this match, in 1994, Lomu was promoted to the All Blacks, playing on the wing against a strong French side. The youngster was out of his depth and was exposed at the end of the Test when the French scored a famous try “from the end of the earth,” a break-out from their try line to win the match. This was the last Test lost by the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Then came the Rugby World Cup 1995. Lomu could not finish the 3000m run held at the training camp to prepare the All Blacks for the tournament. Richard Loe went out and brought the exhausted Lomu back into camp. Earle Kirton, an All Blacks selector at the time, talked coach Laurie Mains into selecting Lomu, despite his stamina problems. The rest, as they say, is history…
But the exhaustion that forced him to a walking pace in his 3000m run was not due to a lack of fitness. It was a first sign of the serious kidney problems that Lomu endured for the rest of his life, and which ultimately killed him.
There were days, sometimes Test match days and sometimes on training days, when Lomu could hardly get out of bed. Yet Lomu played 63 Tests. He scored 37 tries, some of them the most memorable ever scored. This brilliance was honoured at the opening ceremony of Rugby World Cup 2011 when Lomu played a prominent part in the proceedings as a living legend of the game.
Some athletes inflate from the pressures of fame and others, like Jonah Lomu, grow.
He was always gracious in defeat, something the All Blacks have struggled with in the past. In RWC 1999 when France came back from a huge deficit to boot the All Blacks out of the tournament, it was Lomu who was the first and only All Black to congratulate the stunned, victorious French players.
As an ambassador for rugby, after his playing days were over, he went around the world spreading the rugby message that it was a game for everyone, no matter how big or how small, how tall or how short, or whatever race or background. There is a video of a poignant meeting he had recently in South Africa with a seriously ill Joost van der Westhuizen.
Robin Williams loved being presented with an All Blacks jersey by Lomu and made a memorable riff on the event that went viral on You Tube.
The rugby community in the Lomu view is worldwide and spans the ages, those who have gone before us, those of us still involved and the generations yet to play the great game.
And now like so many other legends of the game he is for the ages. Forever Young.