Jonah Lomu – a true legend who transcended sport

Jonah Lomu – a true legend who transcended sport

It was the night of November 11th, 1997, when I made the long journey home from Sardis Road in Pontypridd as a happy and star-struck 14-year-old, alongside a group of friends who had just watched the now defunct Wales ‘A’ side play the touring All Blacks, in a game the latter had easily won 51-8.

But the score, or even the occasion, now meant nothing to me. All that mattered was prior to kick off, I had secured the autograph of a certain Jonah Lomu.

Of course this was no ordinary scribble, this was the signature of a global icon – and the fact that 18 years down the line, the admittedly tatty piece of paper (a page ripped from my Maths book) is the only autograph that remains in my possession, speaks volumes. 

20 year-old superstar

Jonah Lomu – a true legend who transcended sport
Lomu’s status as a superstar had been cemented long before that New Zealand tour of the United Kingdom. He arrived in South Africa ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a 20-year-old with just two international caps and limited ‘sevens’ experience behind him.

He left it a worldwide phenomenon - and the hyperbole centred on far more than the simple fact he notched seven tries in five games.

For the first time, people were watching an athlete who combined searing pace with strength and power, not to mention an array of skills derived from his time in the shorter form of the game.

Superb World Cup Semi-Final

 His semi-final performance against England remains one of the most destructive individual displays ever seen in international rugby. The tone was set in the opening moments when he brushed off Tony Underwood, skipped around Will Carling, and then most famously of all, trampled right over Mike Catt on the way to his first of four tries.
Carling would later describe the 6 ft 5 inch winger as a ‘freak’. The term was far more complimentary than it was derogatory.

Remarkably, his contribution was not accompanied by an eventual New Zealand tournament win, but his role in raising the profile of rugby union, shortly before the game turned professional, has never been matched.

Computer game – and onset of ill-health

A computer game (Jonah Lomu Rugby) even followed, where players could unlock a special ‘Team Lomu’ which consisted of the icon in all 15 positions. To this day, the game is lauded by youngsters and adults alike – and no console has ever got close to producing a rugby union version to match its popularity.

Sadly, the remainder of Lomu’s career was plagued by ill health, after he was diagnosed with a serious kidney disorder at the end of 1995. And yet, he remained a devastating weapon, scoring 37 tries in 63 appearances for the All Blacks. His efforts in the 1999 World Cup, where he touched down eight times, saw him notch tries against England and France that were every bit as astounding as his efforts four years beforehand.

Still pulling in crowds

Inevitably, health problems began to take their toll, and yet Lomu remained a huge draw. By the time he joined the Cardiff Blues on a short term deal in later 2005, his powers had waned significantly. But his sheer presence was enough to attract a then record crowd to the Arms Park for their Christmas game against the Newport Gwent Dragons.

He eventually retired in 2007, although made sporadic appearances thereafter. What he would have achieved had it not been for ill health is a staggering thought.

Missing the point

Some have suggested that Lomu would not have stood out as much in the modern day professional game, where players of huge size and mass have become the norm as opposed to elite.

This argument misses the point entirely. Lomu was a once in a generation player with raw attributes. He prospered years before weight training, protein-fuelled diets and strength and power coaching programmes were fashionable.

However, the best thing about the great man was not his try scoring exploits, his global acclaim, or even the qualities that made him such a frightening force. 

He was eminently human, humble, respectful to the media, and willing to give time to youngsters who clamoured for photos and autographs. During his promotional work at the recent World Cup, his demeanour was one of a man happy to engage with the public and be associated with his sport.

Where will he be regarded in pantheon of sport?

As with any legend, where he stands in rugby union following his tragic death this morning will be debated. Whether he is considered the greatest player of all time perhaps depend on the era that people analyse, or the varying positional qualities that fans favour. 

But one thing cannot be debated. No 20-year-old has ever, and dare I say will ever, arrive on the scene and make the positive global impact on the game that Jonah Lomu once did.

I previously mentioned he was a once in a generation player, but that perhaps does not do justice to the legacy he left.

It would be more accurate to say, he was a once in a lifetime individual.