In the long and storied history of the All Blacks, this may be the most memorable moment of them all.
No, it didn’t lead to a World Cup title, nor even a Tri Nations or a Bledisloe Cup. That’s not the point, the All Blacks have won plenty of trophies. What this moment did was it irrevocably changed the course of rugby. An entire sport, over 150 years old at this moment, rocked like Mike Catt’s ribcage. It was never the same after “Lomu! Oh! Oh!”
It was an earth-shattering thing, the power and the speed, like nothing ever witnessed before. Norman Mailer once wrote: “what is genius but balance on the edge of the impossible?” Well imagine if that balance came with the power of an armoured tank and the speed of a gazelle. That was Jonah Lomu, a “rhinoceros in ballet shoes” as one South African paper dubbed him during that 1995 World Cup. To carry such terrific grace with that unstoppable strength… we’ll never see that again.
That it came from a 20 year old Tongan kid from Wesley College only made it more fantastic. Jonah Lomu fast became the biggest name in rugby. A superstar, the sport’s first global icon. Within months of his four-try masterclass in that semi-final against England, the game went professional and it never looked back. Lomu is a legend of the New Zealand game but it can be argued that he had an even greater impact worldwide. But, as it has since been revealed, even at his most iconic moment he was already beginning to suffer from the rare kidney disease that would cost him so much of his career and, eventually, his life.
The fact that one of the most devastating and powerful athletes in history could have also been so fragile is hard to comprehend. Such a naturally brilliant sportsman betrayed by the body that made him such a hero. This titan of a man lived his life on a tightrope.
He missed almost all of the 1997 season but returned for the end of year tour and would win a Commonwealth Games gold at the Sevens the following season. By 2003 he needed dialysis treatment three times a week. He had a transplant in 2004 and managed a comeback to provincial and then Northern Hemisphere rugby, before retiring in 2007 for good. The transplant was rejected by his body in 2011 and he had needed regular dialysis since – Six hours at a time. Every second day.
The comebacks were not always easy to watch but they were born of an absolute and unwavering love for the game of rugby. Even at the very end he was working as an ambassador, making appearances at World Cup games and spending the tournament in England with his family. They’d arrived back in New Zealand the day before he passed, unexpectedly, but not nearly as much so as it should have been.
“I’m in England for the whole Rugby World Cup. I’m an ambassador for Heineken and I’m doing a speaking tour. But it’s also a tour of dialysis units. By the end of it I’ll have learnt the ins and outs of every clinic in the country.” – Jonah in an interview with the Telegraph.
The contradiction of supreme athleticism and physical frailty is unfathomable. It feels like some wicked trick of fate that we were given the chance to share our time with such a great man only to lose him so soon. Not only Jonah the player but Jonah the person. He lived through the kind of struggles that we couldn’t even imagine and he did so with a smile. He was humble and grateful for what he had, not for what he missed out on.
If we can all live our lives a little bit more like Jonah did then the world will be a more beautiful place.
If you’ve been lucky enough to catch the documentary he put out earlier this year, ‘Back to South Africa’, then you’ll have witnessed the scene where he visits a wheelchair-bound Joost van der Westhuizen, himself battling his own debilitating diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy. They reminisce over the 1995 World Cup final and they share a couple of touching moments. Joost was barely able to speak, he needed translating for the cameras. Two legends of a sport known for its brutal physicality and here they were fighting for their lives. When Jonah tells Joost that he knew, he had faith, that his old friend and competitor would find a way to beat his illness, it should have made you feel cynical but instead it struck as defiantly hopeful – because that was the way that Jonah lived. It was a tear-jerking moment then and it’ll be even more poignant now.
His death at the age of just 40 is devastating. It’s so hard to bear. We always want to see courage and belief rewarded in face of such dreadful adversity but the reality is that life doesn’t work like that. Yet Jonah gave us reason to hope.
Jonah Lomu represents something more to all of us. He was an inspiration of a player and an inspiration of a man. His influence stretches from the multi-million dollar industry of rugby to that little kid throwing a ball around in the park, dreaming of a glorious future that didn’t exist for him two decades ago. And let’s not overlook his impact on Polynesian athletes, as immeasurable as it was and continues to be. Nor should we ignore the biggest tragedy of all of this: that he leaves behind a wife, Nadene, and sons Brayley (6) and Dhyreille (5), who have lost all that we have and more. They’ve also lost a husband and a father.
With all the talk recently about the current All Blacks team’s historical resonance and the legacies of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, in particular, we should probably now stop and acknowledge that neither was the greatest All Black of all time. Nor were Colin Meads or Sean Fitzpatrick or Bob Scott or Tana Umaga or Michael Jones or George Nepia. Nope, the greatest player we’ll ever see played 63 tests and scored 37 tries. He debuted in 1994 and they called him Jonah.