There are some sports people who transcend their sports and are recognisable by simply one part of their name; Jordan, Gretzky, Bolt, Ali and Beckham. Jonah Lomu was one of these individuals who broke down all barriers and was an individual who non-rugby fans knew. As such it was with great sadness that his death was announced to the world, for not only did we loose a legend of our game, but an amazing person.
Jonah was born in 1975 in Auckland and had a tough upbringing where he was nearly lost into a life of gangs and crime. Instead he found rugby, a game where he could take out his aggression in a controlled environment and develop close links with your fellow players. He initially started his career as a back rower before he announced himself to the world in the Hong Kong 7s tournament in 1994 where in a team with Christian Cullen where together they ripped up the pitch.
This soon led to him having an impact like no one before and since at the 1995 rugby world cup in South Africa. Before the tournament he was regarded as an unfinished product and had only two caps, so was a bit of a selection gamble. His combination of size and power was unheralded for a winger at the time and this was manifested in his performance against England in the semi finals where he scored four tries, one by running over Mike Catt at full back. This led to the England captain Will Carling calling him ‘a freak’. These performances came when the game was turning professional and no doubt brought new sponsors to the game and facilitated its rapid development.
Such was his status as an icon that I remember playing Jonah Lomu rugby on the Playstation with my friends. I can’t remember another computer game where the one individual was solely responsible for its sales. He went onto become the leading world cup try scorer with 15 tries in two tournaments which is an accolade he now shares with Bryan Habana (three tournaments). There are so many wonderful stories about the man, but here are a couple of my favourites.
When at school his school team was invited to a mens 7s tournament. He couldn’t make the morning session where his team didn’t fair to well without him, but when he arrived in the afternoon they managed to get through to the final and showed up a couple of serious teams along the way. Subsequently school teams were no longer invited to the tournament.
The other story is of Clive Woodward running through his team selection against New Zealand and saying he would not swap any of his starting XV for any of the Kiwi XV. At this point Will Greenwood pipes up ‘I don’t know Clive, perhaps we could swap Aus (Austin Healey) for Jonah’.
His achievements are made all the more remarkable that since the end of 1995 he was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a serious kidney disorder, which meant he couldn’t play to his full capacity. Which is frankly quite scary to think what he could have achieved! I remember him best for not just his power but his hand off. His fend was formidable and left a massive array of players floundering on the floor looking at his heels run past. He also had one of the best in and out moves in the game and the gas to leave people in his wake. He was truly a global superstar and will be sorely missed by the whole of the rugby community and his family.
I’ll finish this off with one final story that I heard recently about a pre game incident that he had with Zinzan Brooke, which I think sums up the man as not just a player but as a great friend and wonderful individual.
Zinzan Brooke and Jonah were very good friends and also fiercely competitive with each other. On the morning of a game day (it might have been the Bledisloe Cup) Zinzan saw a basket of muffins and looked at Jonah and asked how many he thought he could manage? A few minutes later Jonah had given in after eating about 7-10 muffins and Zinzan stood victorious. Jonah then congratulated him and got ready for the game, no doubt thinking about how he could win the next challenge.