Thursday, 26 November 2015

Jonah Lomu: Rugby Union's Great Decoder

By Shane Thomas

Sunday, 18th June 1995. I am 11 years old.

Having recently become a fan of rugby union, I am sitting on the rug in the front room of my home in Streatham, excitedly awaiting the upcoming World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England. Despite the All Blacks going into the game as favourites, I was enthused at the prospect of an England victory.

After a disjointed beginning to the tournament, England went into the match off the back of a thrilling quarter-final win over Australia, courtesy of a last minute drop-goal. As is customary where sport is concerned, Australia had a fierce rivalry with England, and were the holders of the competition (beating England in their own back yard in the final in 1991). So for England to get revenge four years on set the team up to believe they could go one better this time around. After all, they proved they could defeat the reigning champions, so what did they have to fear?

So, there I sat, full with youthful optimism, ready to proclaim an England win, and see them get one step closer to winning their first Rugby Union World Cup.

Four minutes later, this happened.

Before the match, 20 year old winger, Jonah Lomu was known to be a threat. After the match, he became the first rugby union superstar. He had a fearsome combination of both speed and strength that had never been seen before in the sport. Weighing at roughly 18 stone (around 260 lbs), but able to run the 100 metres in a shade under 11 seconds. He was like one of those "create your own characters" from a video game, where you cheat and give them the highest stats possible.

But Lomu was no cheat. And it's important not to paint him solely as a genetic freak, an uncontrollable Polynesian savage, rugby union's very own Frankenstein's monster. He had skill to go with his athletic gifts, the ability to pick smart lines to run past players, as well as through them. Lomu once said; "My way of thinking when I was running with the ball was that I will use every single option that is available to me but if you leave me with no option, I will run over you"

As many of you are aware, Lomu recently passed away, as a consequence of a rare kidney disease, nephrotic syndrome, having a deleterious affect on his red blood count, draining him of energy. What's incredible is that he was suffering from this affliction while marmalising England back in 1995. Eventually the affliction took its toll, with Lomu playing his final game for the All Blacks at only 27.

Despite all this, he still holds the joint-record for tries scored in a rugby union World Cup (15). But more than that, he is arguably the most influential man to have ever played the sport. As union turned professional, the sight of lithe wingers became a thing of the past, and the best exponents of that position are often as bulky as they are mobile.

Lomu's display in the 1995 World Cup - especially against England - was rugby union's equivalent of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey depicting the dawn of humankind, as that bone gets thrown into the air. He left even the most parochial England fan dumbstruck by his brilliance, barely able to comprehend what they were witnessing. I never saw the West Indies cricketers "blackwash" England, but I can imagine the emotions it evoked echoed the ones I had watching Lomu 20 years ago.

The phrase "shock and awe" is often associated with imperialist American foreign policy. But it adequately describes Lomu's effect on rugby union. He left England in shock, and left the watching world in awe.

Lomu's gift to sport is similar to the one evinced by Usain Bolt, Nadia Comaneci, or Roger Federer. For one watching a sport they have no knowledge of, it can feel like being confronted with a foreign language. Lomu - like those aforementioned athletes - was able to decode the orphic in their sports[1]. They decode what was once inscrutable, and make its virtues plain. That's why they tend to have crossover popularity, because they've taken the gift of their sport, and shared it with the world.

Such athletes should be treasured, and it was pleasing to see how much the rugby union community appeared to treasure Lomu. Even those who he thwarted on the field seem to remember him with fondness.

His performance in Cape Town on that Sunday remains one of the most indelible memories of my sporting watching life. It was a true privilege to witness, even as he was acquainting me with the acrid feeling of watching one's team lose.

Rugby union had never seen a player like him before. And it's never seen one like him since. Farewell Jonah, and thank you.

[1] - What makes this especially impressive in Lomu's case is that rugby union is one of the most esoteric sports imaginable. Even the majority of its fans can't honestly claim to have a firm grasp on all of its rules.

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