Toby Webb reflects on the sad passing of one of rugby’s greatest ever players, Jonah Lomu
The tragic news of Jonah Lomu’s passing swept the world last Wednesday (18/11). The immense outpouring of homages to the player proved to be a measure of how loved he was. Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest players, he accumulated 63 caps for New Zealand, scoring 37 tries in the process.
Lomu’s playing career is astonishing given his problems with illness. At 21, he was diagnosed with a rare and serious kidney condition, nephrotic syndrome. He contended with this ailment through most of his career, taking several breaks from rugby because of it. That he is considered one of the greatest, despite having a debilitating illness, illustrates how good a player he was.
Lomu broke into the New Zealand XV in 1994, aged just 19. Despite having only two caps, he was included in the squad for the 1995 World Cup, which turned out to be one of the most justified decisions in the whole of sport. Lomu set the tournament alight, wreaking havoc on several of the home nations. He scored seven tries in five matches, two against Ireland, one against Scotland and four tries in the semi-final against England. His performance against England would go down in history. It was an utter embarrassment on our part. Lomu brushed past the opposition with such ease. Lomu was a thorn in the side of England throughout his career: he played 7 times against England, winning 5, losing only once, and most importantly, scoring 8 tries.
Lomu holds the joint record for tries scored in a World Cup (15). He was equalled by Bryan Habana in this year’s tournament. However, Habana has accumulated his tries over 3 tournaments and Lomu only two: he was a prolific scorer. Despite this, he never won the World Cup.
Lomu was a rare breed. Many rugby players have one or two outstanding attributes: Lomu had everything. Firstly, he had lightning pace. Playing on the wing meant he scored many tries by simply running around the opposition. However, when faced with defenders in his path, he could utilise his mass (he weighed over 18 stone). This led to the infamous moment when Lomu bulldozed his way over England’s Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup semi-final. Lomu’s height (6 ft 5 in) meant he remained nimble despite his weight. Combining all of this made Lomu terrifying to play against: He had so many ways of bettering you. The decision to move Lomu from a number 8 position to the wing for the 1995 World Cup was another factor in his success. No one had ever dealt with a presence like that before. Rugby in that era was a lot to do with agility, avoiding contact by finding the space. Lomu pioneered a new style of rugby: using brute force to break tackles. The fact that he had blistering pace too meant that he could excel in the traditional style of rugby.
Lomu’s impact on rugby as a whole was and will always be enormous. Having such brute force and power in the backs was innovative. It was the beginning of the progression towards modern day rugby, where size is a universal trait rather than exclusive to the forwards. He went on to be viewed as a template for success. The current Wales team perfectly exemplifies the transition from agility to brute force. The 1995 World Cup team had David Evans at centre and Ieuan Evans on the wing. They weighed 80kg and 84kg respectively. The 2015 equivalent, Jamie Roberts at centre and George North on the wing, weigh 107kg and 109kg respectively. This illustrates the transition to power and weight in rugby. The weight increase in rugby as a whole can be linked to the increase in professionalism: dietary planning and physical conditioning. However, Lomu was the template.
Lomu’s career will go down in history as one of the greatest. While there are players, and will continue to be players, that surpass him in caps and tries scored, none will have the impact that he had on the game. He shaped modern day rugby, and this is what he will be remembered for.
In other rugby news, England have appointed Eddie Jones on a 4 year contract as their new head coach, following the termination of Stuart Lancaster’s contract. Jones is England’s first ever foreign coach.