He was labelled the first “superstar of rugby.” There are some who will argue that Colin “Pinetree” Meads, Barry John or JPR Williams were superstars before him, but they never received the coverage that Jonah Lomu’s feats did, as in their day there was not television coverage like there when Lomu burst onto the scene.
In Rugby terms Lomu was huge. Not just as a physical presence, but in terms of the media attention he attracted. What many forget is that the height of his fame was at a time when Rugby Union was still an amateur sport.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup garnered more attention than those that had gone before because it was being hosted by South Africa who had only just returned to the international sporting fold. Other sports were watching closely to see how a sport that had been so heavily linked to the Afrikaners Apartheid regime would be received. Not only that, the world wanted to see how much isolation had affected South Africa’s famed Springboks.
South Africa were in some ways lucky that Jonah Lomu was playing in this tournament as he took much of the attention away from their team. South Africa started with a win against Australia which was the ideal result for the host nation on the opening day. Two days later Jonah Lomu announced his arrival with two tries against Ireland.
At this stage of his career he was a one-man attacking wrecking ball, demolishing defences and players in his way. In the semi final against England Lomu ran in four tries, and the way he ran through, and over Mike Catt is an image that even non-rugby followers can remember. How could one stop this mammoth man with a battering-ram fend and who moved with a pace that defied his size?
While all eyes were on Lomu South Africa made their way to the final. Then their attention turned to how they could stop Lomu. Accounts of the lead up to the final claim that the plan was to always double-team him in the tackle. Yet that is all well and good in a team briefing, another thing altogether in a game, let alone a World Cup Final. Eleven minutes into the match the theory was put to the test, and the man who made what was probably the most telling tackle of his career was Joost van der Westhuizen; himself sadly a very sick man today. Within seconds of Van der Westhuizen grabbing Lomu in came front rower Os du Randt.
Much has been made of the words said to Lomu by the President of South Africa Nelson Mandela when he was introduced the the teams before kick off, how he deliberately spent longer talking to Lomu, but it was that tackle that gave the Springboks the belief that they could stop the Legend.
South Africa won the World Cup but with Seven tries in the tournament – the same as fellow All Black Marc Ellis – the Legend of Lomu was born.
Yet the memory of Jonah Lomu that will live with me comes from the 1999 World Cup four years later hosted by Wales. Lomu again was the top try scorer, this time scoring eight tries as New Zealand bowed out at the semi-final stage. They had scored 176 points in three games in their pool and were expected to contest the final. They brushed aside Scotland in the Quarter Finals and then met France in the semi final at Twickenham. New Zealand swept into the lead courtesy of two tries from Lomu, but France staged a fightback the like of which has rarely been seen. Just after half time France were down 24-10, by the end of the match they had won 43-31.
When the final whistle sounded the French were ecstatic as were their fans. Few could believe what they had witnessed. The French players went to celebrate with the fans and set off on a lap of honour. The All Blacks waited by the tunnel to clap them off the pitch, but as each minute passed and the French remained on the pitch one by one they headed down to the changing rooms. When the French did finally make their way to the tunnel there were just two All Blacks still waiting for them and one was the greatest player of that era, Jonah Lomu. (The other I believe was Tana Umaga).
Lomu was the stricken with a kidney complaint, his career came to a halt. He was never heard to complain. He remained humble to the last. He was a shining light in World Sport. A man huge both physically and in the aura he had about him on the pitch, yet he never lost the human touch. He was a man of the people, and a man to be admired for so much more than his just his rugby.
May he rest in peace. Thanks for the Memories.