Jonah Lomu, dead?
Jonah Lomu highlights
Highlights from the career of All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who passed away at the age of 40.
It scarcely seems credible.
Still so young, at just 40, and such a force of nature, such a giant of rugby.
For all of us, the memories crowd back.
When he burst upon the rugby scene at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, none of us had ever seen anything like him. In an age when wingers tended to be built like thermometers, here was a bloke built like a rampaging second-rower, who could nevertheless run the 100 metres in about 11 seconds, with a football in his hands!
The All Blacks played in seven matches in South Africa, Lomu played in six of them and I saw them all – covering it for the Sydney Morning Herald – with, impossibly, each performance more stunning the last, right up until the final. In the early pool game, under lights at Ellis Park, Lomu got the ball just two metres out from his own line in the corner, and started off up field.
The Irish threw everything at him, including their entire forward pack. He bumped, he weaved, he shimmied, he shook, he outpaced, he slowed down and then accelerated once more, as the crowd leapt to its feet. I kid you not, by the time he put the ball down at the other end of the field, of course between the posts, I counted seven still prone Irish players, dotted around the field, marking the course he had taken!
It is a part of rugby folklore that, so impressive was Lomu in that tournament that, as it went on, an eight-year-old boy living just out of Christchurch, wrote a fax in his childish scrawl to the All Blacks, saying: "Dear All Blacks, Remember, rugby is a team game. All 14 of yers, pass the ball to Jonah."
And so they did, and never more so than in the semi-final against England in Cape Town. By now, the whole rugby world was watching Lomu, and from the kick-off the ball was quickly passed to him out on the left wing. Lomu jigged, jagged, weaved and went straight over some Englishmen – a "freight-train in ballet shoes," I described him. Finally, there was only the English fullback, slender Mike Catt, between him and the line. Catt, to his great credit, did not back off, and actually managed to get himself tangled in the wheels of the said freight train and tried to hold on to Lomu's shorts for dear life. No matter, Lomu continued to the line, bumping Catt out of the way, and scored, just 30 seconds into the game. By match's end, he had got his hands on the ball seven times, scored four tries, and set up two.
It was the Catt try, however, that remained one of rugby's most famous and significant moments. Watching the match from London, Rupert Murdoch turned to his lieutenant Sam Chisholm, and said, "I have to have that player." Murdoch's commitment to professionalising rugby was stronger than ever, and would commit $US555 million to doing exactly that.
Some try! And yet, in a measure of the man, when, years later, Lomu was offered a great deal of money to do an advertisement for Pizza Hut, using the footage, the gentle winger declined, on the grounds it would unnecessarily humiliate the Englishman.
True, in the World Cup Final, Lomu, like the whole All Blacks side, came off a bit, but it didn't dent the Lomu legend for a minute. As the years went by he continued to put in stunning performances, amassing 37 tries, in 63 Tests, and such was his stature it even outshone the All Blacks.
In Australia, his most stunning performance came in the famed 2000 Test, at the Olympic Stadium. The All Blacks got off to a stunning 18-0 lead after just eight minutes, only for the Wallabies to fight their way back to a stunning 35-34 lead with just 30 seconds to go.
In the hands of the All Blacks, the action was so fast and furious, and the roar of the crowd so shattering, no one was actually watching Lomu until . . . just seconds to go, a spiralling pass hit a player in the chest, out on the left wing. Who is it?
LOMU! On the burst.
Three Wallabies hit him, and hit him hard, with the game in the balance. Of course he scored. The All Blacks won the match 39-35.
I always fancied, somehow, that however much Lomu was revered in New Zealand, still we loved him more in Australia. Not just for his ability, but for his humility. He was a man who had every right to swagger, but never did. It seemed odd, and not right, that such a force of nature should suffer from a debilitating kidney disease, but he never complained of it. He just got on with it.
It seems now, downright wrong, that one such as he should die so young.
But what a legacy he leaves behind, and what memories. Jonah Lomu. He changed the way the game was played. He was the most thrilling player not just of his generation, but of all time.
He will be missed.
Fairfax Media extends its deepest condolences to his family.