This is the story of a man was taken from his sport and his family before his time.
Jonah Tali Lomu first appeared on the radar at the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens tournament, but it was at the 1995 Rugby World Cup that the man that became known simply as Jonah really made his name. Until that point, there were two types of rugby player – big, strong guys who played in the forwards, and fast, skilful guys that played in the backs. Lomu was both at the same time. Standing at 6’5” and weighing in at 18 stone, he could easily have slotted into the back row of the scrum with no questions asked were it not for the fact that he could run the 100m in 10.5 seconds. The world of rugby was in no way prepared for what was coming its way.
In one of the greatest New Zealand teams of all time, Lomu was the undoubted star. A brace of tries in the group stage against Ireland made the public sit up and take notice, before touching down once again in the quarter-final with Scotland. However, the semi-final between Lomu’s All Blacks and England has gone down in rugby history as one of the sport’s defining moments. New Zealand’s number 11 tore the English backline to shreds, with four tries crushing the hopes of those in the Red Rose. The first, where he used Mike Catt as a doormat on his way to the try-line, illustrated the strength and power of the man. The second and third showcased Lomu’s sheer speed, as well as his game vision, before the fourth allowed the big winger to show off his footwork. The English had no answer, and Lomu had secured his status as rugby’s first global superstar.
Despite this, he was unable to cap an incredible debut tournament with the World Cup triumph he and his country desired. South Africa, playing for a recently reunited nation, somehow found a way to nullify the most dangerous man in rugby and deny him the winner’s medal he probably deserved. Nevertheless, Lomu had now transcended the sport to become the best known name in the game.
What should have happened next was for Lomu’s development as a player to go through the roof, and become the undoubted best winger of all time. What we got instead was the announcement that he had been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a debilitating kidney disease that affected his fitness and left him needing regular dialysis sessions. However, it was a mark of the man that he refused to let this be the end of his rugby days prematurely. He worked his way back to fitness, and returned to the sport in 1997 despite the condition, something that he learned to cope with during his playing career.
In 1999, Lomu arrived at his second World Cup, this time with a reputation. It was a reputation, however, that he not only justified, but enhanced. Eight tries in the tournament cemented his status as rugby’s biggest name, with a brace against England in the group phase reminding the world of the power he had at his disposal, brushing off the attempted tackles of defender after defender, before lining up against France in the semi-final. Another brace, including a famous try in which he holds off five or six Frenchmen to touch down, was once again not enough, as arguably the greatest comeback in rugby history prevented Lomu from having another shot at glory.
It was typical of who he was, though, that this didn’t affect how he was viewed by the rugby population. He remained the biggest name in rugby throughout the early 2000s, increasing his popularity by turning out for the Barbarians and merging his unstoppable power with the free-spirited ethic of rugby’s most famous invitational side to great effect. It was only when his illness caused him to require a kidney transplant in 2002 that he took a step back from his rugby career, quite rightly prioritising his health over his profession. Even then, he made his comeback in 2006, briefly turning out for Cardiff Blues in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make the 2007 World Cup squad for New Zealand. His mere presence saw Cardiff record some of their biggest attendances in recent years, showing just how big a draw he was to the general public.
Nowadays, supersized wingers are relatively commonplace in rugby. The likes of George North and – Lomu’s heir in the New Zealand number 11 shirt – Julian Savea regularly terrorise defences and cause havoc on the pitch. Their feats are broadcast to millions worldwide in high-definition, and are widely reported in print and online. The mass coverage of the sport and direction in which the game has moved since going professional in 1995 are just two of the impacts made by the humble giant from Pukekohe, and the sport is better off for it.
A hero, a trailblazer, a bulldozer and a gentleman. Thanks Jonah, for the game of rugby that we have today.