Jonah Lomu died today, November 17, a huge loss to the world rugby community. I thought I would just give you some thoughts about this player.
If you are young, you might not know who he was, perhaps you think he was just another one of those old guys. But Lomu, while the dominant wing in the game from 1994-1999, was much more than that.
He Changed the Game
In 1995, the Rugby World Cup was broadcast to a larger audience than ever before. The tournament itself was a revelation, far more entertaining than the two before it, and as it was held on the eve of the game turning professional, fans got a glimpse at what a professional rugby player might look like. Just out of school, 6-5, 230-plus pounds with a sidestep and speed, Lomu was virtually unstoppable. He scored seven tries in that tournament (and he was rested against Japan, where his replacement, Marc Ellis, scored six in just the one game).
But more than that, he electrified fans. He helped make professional rugby fun. He ushered in a new age.
In the 1995 Rugby World Cup semifinal, Lomu touched the ball five times. In those five touches he gained roughly 180 meters, scored four tries, and was dragged down just short of the line on the other carry, popping up to a trailing Josh Kronfeld for another try.
Lomu was universally praised as just a flat-out nice guy. I was at an event once promoting rugby as an Olympic sport. Lomu appeared with another very famous rugby player. Everyone walked away from that event talking about how nice Jonah was. The other one? Nothing wrong with who he was or what he said or did, but Lomu's niceness just overwhelmed people.
Telling it Like it Is
As I have mentioned before, when World Rugby pitched the sport for the Olympics before the International Olympic Committee in 2009, one delegate starting asking about what kind of venue Rugby 7s would need, what facilities, things like that. Lomu smiled and said "just tell us when and where, and we'll be there." That was Jonah Lomu, and he epitomized the rugby spirit. Hey, just let us play.
What he Meant
This year I interviewed Samu Manoa for an article for the Rugby World Cup game programs. In it I asked him a series of questions, including who was his favorite player. He said one word: "Jonah." He didn't need to say any more.
His record of eight tries in a World Cup (1999) was tied this year, but not broken (Julian Savea needed seven games to score his eight; Lomu needed just six). His record of 15 tries in all World Cups was tied this year, but not broken. He achieved those numbers playing in 11 RWC games, while Bryan Habana has played in 18.
Jonah Lomu helped usher in the fan excitement that made professional rugby popular from the start. He bridged all barriers as a player and a person. And he was at the forefront of the campaign to make rugby an Olympic sport. He died suddenly at the age of 40, and yet how many can say they had such an influence in his lifetime?