The rugby world was rocked this week by the devastating news that one of its greatest stars had been taken from us aged just 40.
The tragedy is that, despite Jonah Lomu’s relatively tender age, he was far from in the prime of his life due to the debilitating kidney disease that reportedly required extensive daily dialysis.
In fact, diagnosed with the very rare and serious nephrotic syndrome in 1995 – the same year the world stood dumbfounded as he bludgeoned his way through Rugby World Cup 1995 – the scary thought is that he probably never played at 100% of his capabilities.
Even at, say, 80%, the world will remember as he made fully-grown, highly-tuned athletes – who were in the prime of their life – look like skittles as he bowled his way to a record 15 tries across two Rugby World Cups (a record now matched by Bryan Habana but over three Tournaments).
Wind back to 1995 and a relatively unknown, twice-capped Lomu (the youngest capped All Black at just 19 years and 45 days) introduced himself on the scene with two tries in the All Blacks’ first match against Ireland and another in the quarter final against Scotland. It was the semi-final against England though when Lomu caught the world’s eye as he proceeded to single-handedly demolish the English with a four-try routing of Will Carling and co.
The first, and most notable, of the four occurred in only the second minute of the match. It started with Lomu receiving an ugly pass behind him but backtracking to collect the ball didn’t stop him from leaving Will Carling, Tony Underwood and Mike Catt flailing at his ankles as he clattered over the white line (and Catt in the process). Carling’s subsequent description of him as a ‘freak’ was accurate but it wasn’t just his ability to carry his 6ft5, 19stone frame over 100m in under 11 seconds, but also his agility and low centre of gravity that made him unstoppable force of nature.
While the All Blacks were thwarted by South Africa in that historic Final, Lomu’s efforts catapulted him – and the game of rugby – to global recognition. Comparisons are now being drawn to Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and rightly so for the way Lomu’s influence on rugby union transcended the sport, promoting it to a world audience. Ronaldo and Messi are among the biggest sports stars on the planet at the moment, and here’s one of our favourite tribute tweets from Richard Innes, Editor of MirrorFootball’s ‘Row Zed’:
If you’re not a big rugby fan, just know that #JonahLomu was basically the sport’s Ronaldo & Messi COMBINED in the mid-90s. RIP big man.
— Richard Innes (@bigrichinnes) November 18, 2015
That 1995 was in the early stages of his career and he went onto play for the All Blacks 63 times (scoring 37 tries and 185 points in the process), all the while suffering from a condition which left him “constantly tired”, shows how ‘unstoppable’ he was. He was unquestionably the most prominent attacking threat in Rugby World Cup history, with the most clean breaks (32) metres gained (1,219) and defenders beaten (a staggering 97) across his 11 appearances:
97 – Jonah Lomu beat 97 defenders in 11 RWC appearances, 35 more than any other player in RWC history. Greatest. pic.twitter.com/W2dcZ8YgEJ
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) November 19, 2015
But even superheroes have their weaknesses. Fast forward through a gold medal for rugby sevens at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, another eight tries in Rugby World Cup 1999 and victory for New Zealand at the 2011 Sevens World Cup, and the disease was starting to seriously take its toll. By 2002 he had played his last Test for the All Blacks and in May 2003 New Zealand Rugby announced that Lomu was on dialysis three times a week. He bravely fought through being nearly crippled as a result of nerve-damage from the treatment and underwent a transplant in 2004, which served to give him a new lease of life until his body rejected the organ in 2011 forcing dialysis on him once more.
He appeared in reasonable health during the recent Rugby World Cup, doing promotional work with Heineken, and the sudden nature of his death made it all the more shocking.Question marks are now being raised as to whether there will EVER be anyone who comes close to replicating Lomu’s achievements. In short, probably not. Even the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter and the great Richie McCaw (who announced his retirement the day after Lomu’s passing), while they were superstars of the game, didn’t elevate it to the levels that Lomu did. Indeed Wilkinson’s own tribute hailed Lomu as, “The greatest superstar and just a fabulous human being.”
I am so, so devastated to hear of the passing away of @JONAHTALILOMU The greatest superstar and just a fabulous human being. Deeply saddened
— Jonny Wilkinson (@JonnyWilkinson) November 18, 2015
While Lomu’s feats on the field are unparalleled, the second half of Wilko’s statement also catches the eye and the resounding sentiment that has arisen from his passing is what a wonderful human being Lomu was. Raised in a rough neighbourhood in South Auckland by a violent, alcoholic father, it could have been a very different story but he was the epitome of the ‘gentle giant’; a colossus but one whose humility equalled his gargantuan size.
The tribute we’ll leave you with is a haka formed by the boys of Wesley College, the high school where he won the 100m, 100m hurdles, 200m, 400m, long jump, high jump, triple jump, shot, discus and javelin in the same year. An unstoppable superhuman? As close as you can get. #RIPJonahLomu