One of the true legends of rugby died in November. Scotty Stevenson reflected on the passing of the one and only Jonah Lomu.
The most unstoppable man in the history of rugby was finally stopped today. He was just 40. Jonah Tali Lomu died unexpectedly in Auckland this morning after returning from the Rugby World Cup in the UK where, with his customary enthusiasm, passion and outsized presence, he had preached the game’s gospel to an admiring congregation.
Lomu, who had been diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome, a debilitating kidney disorder that robbed him of much of his present as well as his future, still managed to become one of the game’s most memorable athletes, if not its most memorable. His unforgettable rugby world cup performance in 1995 was the catalyst for professionalism. It made him a superstar. It made others rich.
I watched Jonah in South Africa as he tore the rugby world cup to pieces. The story goes that then All Blacks coach Laurie Mains didn’t quite know how to deal with his 20-year old prodigy. Sevens legend Eric Rush was forced into a role as go-between and handler. Thank goodness for his intervention.
Like the rest of the world I watched him, slack-jawed and disbelieving, as he dismembered the opposition. Everyone remembers his revelatory semi-final against the English, but there were many more games in which this Tongan Colossus bestrode the park like an otherworldly figure. He was the most exciting player anyone had ever seen. He was the most terrifying player anyone had ever tackled.
In his new biography, Dan Carter recalls his first and only match against Lomu. “I tried to tackle Jonah once at full pace and was blown back two metres. He was an absolute force of nature. I was grateful I never again had to try to tackle that man.”
Lomu played 73 times for the All Blacks of which 63 were test matches. He finished his career with 43 tries. He also played provincial rugby for Counties and for Wellington, and Super Rugby for the Blues, the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. In all, he featured in 185 first class games, and scored 122 tries.
He was forced to retire from international rugby in 2002 but there was always a desire to keep going. He made comebacks in the UK and in France, he played testimonial matches, he refused to give in to his disease. He received a kidney transplant and still he kept going. As recently as 2011 he was preparing to box in a charity fight. He was infinitely irrepressible. he spent the last two months of his life smiling and laughing with people in between hooking himself up to a dialysis machine. His lust for life was the biggest thing about him.
From an early age this man was destined for greatness. A shy and retiring child at school, he was convinced to trial for the Wesley College 1st XV and made the side as a fourth former. He was a star at the famous Hong Kong Sevens. He was an All Black at 19 years and 45 days.
Yet, there was nothing great about Lomu’s introduction to test match rugby. It was against France in 1994, at Lancaster Park. The All Blacks were defeated that day 22-8. The next week he took the field at Eden Park and again the French came out on top. What confidence he had left he bundled up and took to the world cup the very next year. What demons possessed him in the wake of those early failures and the accompanying criticism were exorcised on those African fields.
It would not be unfair to say that Jonah Lomu was never universally admired in New Zealand. Nor, for the longest time, was he shown due deference for the way in which he transformed the game. In recent years he has been afforded his rightful place in the folklore of the national game, but that came long after his place at the top table of world rugby was secured.
Jonah Lomu’s contribution to the game can easily be measured by all those who take a paycheque from it. His statistics may be forgotten over time, and they will be surpassed too. But he will remain, for eternity, the perfect man at the perfect time. That shall never be beaten. His death also comes before he can witness one of his other great contributions bearing fruit – namely the reintroduction of rugby to the Olympic Games in Rio.
Jonah’s death is a tragedy. He leaves behind his children and his wife Nadene who must now get used to a life without him. A man with a heart that size leaves a lot of empty space. A few years ago I stood in a boxing ring punching a heavy bag during a training session and there in the corner – in my corner – was Jonah Lomu. I have never forgotten how encouraging he was, and how special he could make you feel.
That ability to make everyone around him feel special, even when his body was weak and his kidneys were failing and his will to carry on was enduring its toughest test – that was his greatest gift of all.
There will never be another Jonah. And he will be missed.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.