Jonah Lomu (born 12 May 1975, died 18 November 2015) was the first – and remains the only – rugby player to achieve worldwide fame. His feats at the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament made him a household name, ensured the success of the transition to professional rugby, and redefined wing play.
Jonah Tali Lomu was born to Tongan parents in south Auckland, which he called home for much of his life. Aged 12, he could pass for 18. Blessed with speed as well as size, he starred at athletics and excelled at rugby at Wesley College. As a lock and then a loose forward, he intimidated schoolboy opponents and was soon a New Zealand age-group representative.
Lomu’s impressive play at the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens tournament encouraged All Blacks coach Laurie Mains to select him on the left wing for the mid-year series against France. Recently turned 19, he was the youngest All Black ever – and played like it. Raw potential could not make up for positional naivety and nervous ball-handling. Lomu was among those left grasping at shadows as the French scored the ‘try from the end of the world’ that won the second test at Eden Park.
Despite his poor fitness (in part the result of an undiagnosed kidney condition), Mains persevered with Lomu. He had pace and balance, despite being 196cm tall and weighing nearly 120kg. Outside backs were traditionally lightly built, and Lomu had the potential to wreak havoc amongst them. He played his third test against Ireland in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, scoring two tries and almost a third with a storming 60-m run. But it was his try in the semifinal following a botched planned move from the kick-off that went global. Lomu evaded two defenders before running over the hapless English fullback to the accompaniment of ecstatic cries from commentator Keith Quinn.
Also impressed was media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who reputedly instructed a News Limited minion to ‘get that guy’ for a professional rugby series that would run on Sky Television. Within a few months SANZAR was created to run an annual Tri-Nations competition between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia that was underpinned by a professional Super 12 competition involving four teams from each country.
Lomu earned millions from marketing contracts with commercial giants such as McDonald’s, adidas, Reebok and Heineken (which he promoted at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, just before his death). But because of the nephrotic syndrome which became public knowledge in 1996, he was never again quite the player of 1995. Some of his best moments came at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, in which he scored eight tries to go with his seven in 1995. This Rugby World Cup record total of 15 was later matched by Springbok Bryan Habana over three tournaments.
Lomu’s other shining moment came in the 2000 ‘match of the century’ against the Australian Wallabies in front of a record rugby crowd of 110,000 at Sydney’s new Olympic Stadium. The All Blacks won 39–35 thanks to a try scored by Lomu in the 80th minute after he managed to evade desperate tacklers while somehow remaining in the field of play.
Jonah Lomu played his last test in 2002, aged just 27, and bowed out of first-class rugby the following year, by when he needed dialysis three times a week. A kidney transplant in 2004 enabled him to play sporadically until 2010, but not to his former level.
Because of his health battles, Lomu played more tests (63) than Super 12 matches (59) – the latter for the Blues, the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. With 37 test tries, in 2015 he still ranked sixth on the All Blacks’ all-time list.
As his playing career wound down, Jonah Lomu became an advocate for health charities such as Kidney Kids. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2003 and inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007.
People around the world were moved by his sudden death at just 40. The Argentinian Pumas donned number 11 jerseys before a match; Britain’s Telegraph eulogised him as ‘a force of nature’ and ‘a man apart’. Ten thousand people attended a memorial service at Eden Park.
By David Green