Considering it’s the sport I grew up watching and playing, it seems odd that I’ve never really written much about rugby. Maybe being a Bristol fan it’s just too painful to do so. Nothing really compares to the pain felt by the entire rugby world today though with the passing way too soon of All Black great Jonah Lomu.
For most people weaned on the amateur game, the arrival of a then 20-year old Lomu at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an undeniable turning point in modern rugby. No longer were wingers always the scrawny kids with socks at half mast, they were now rampaging monsters built bigger and stronger than the majority of your pack.
Once Lomu had finished using Mike Catt as a doormat, a legend was instantly born, and the professional era really kicked in. There were even video game endorsements for the unstoppable All Black, and I for one will never forget the classic Sega Saturn outing where the pixelated Lomu was bigger than every player in the game, could hand off with ease and scored tries from everywhere, much to the delight of the commentating legend Bill ‘he digs like a demented mole in there’ McLaren.
Following the 1995 World Cup, Lomu was diagnosed with a rare but serious kidney disease. As was typical of the destructive wing, this didn’t seem to be much of an obstacle to him as he continued to play international rugby until 2003 before having a kidney transplant the year after. During his career, Lomu left defenders trailing in his wake time and time again and was the ultimate embodiment of strength against adversity, even when the injuries piled up.
I remember whilst at University in 1999, the money that was being pumped into Bristol Rugby at the time seemed to be on the verge of luring Lomu to the club. I pinned the Daily Mail article that broke the story to my bedroom wall, hoping and praying that we’d be able to pull off such a massive coup. Unfortunately it never came to pass and I was left ruing what might have been as Bristol eventually tumbled from the Premiership in 2003 and never really recovered to this day.
Once Lomu finally called time on his playing career, the world got to see how his brain matched his brawn as he tirelessly went about his duties as both an ambassador for the sport as well as for other charities such as Help For Heroes. Endlessly giving, Lomu even turned out in a charity match to support a local children’s charity in Aberavon, a game pulled together by friends he had made during his time playing for Cardiff Blues.
This year, Lomu came over to the UK to take part in promotional work during the Rugby World Cup. Having managed to get into the Heineken Lounge at Twickenham during the semi-final weekend, we decided we had to get in again before the Final, especially considering Lomu was the guest at the prestigious event. We donned All Black tuxedos, chatted up as many Heineken promotional girls we could find, but all to no avail; we got within yards of the big man, but sadly didn’t get what is now one final chance to meet him and thank him for all that he had done for the sport.
You can call anyone a legend if they happen to have been particularly successful in a sport, but Lomu never won the World Cup. His career was stop-start and plagued by injuries alongside his kidney issues. Despite this, for everything that Jonah Lomu did to prove that against all adversity you can be the best at what you do, Lomu was undoubtedly just that, a legend in life and in the game he loved. And for that, I thank him and hope that his legacy continues for all who participate in the game in the future. Thank you Jonah and rest in peace.