Jonah Lomu: The man behind the modern game

2015-11-22 15:30

The image of Jonah Lomu trampling over hapless English players will probably endure for as long as rugby is played.

The big All Black became the major talking point of the 1995 rugby World Cup in South Africa, but it was in the semifinal, against England at Newlands, that he wrote his name indelibly into the record books.

He had already wreaked havoc on the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots, scoring tries or creating them for the ever-attendant flanker Josh Kronfeld, but the awesome might of his size and pace blazed incandescently in the match against England.

Lomu, running around, through or straight over English defenders, scored four of the All Blacks’ six tries as, in 80 minutes, he transformed the global reach and very fabric of the game of rugby.

Somewhere in the world, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch was watching. After the game, he picked up the phone and called Sam Chisholm, his manager in charge of his sports television channels.

“Get me that man,” Murdoch is rumoured to have said.

And with that, rugby was changed forever.

Murdoch had been involved in a tussle with his Australian rival Kerry Packer over the rights for rugby league, but it had been mooted to him that rugby union was a better and bigger proposition.

Lomu convinced him. Such an athlete, such a crowd pleaser, had to be owned – and Murdoch wanted him in his News Corp empire.

Just days later, during the build-up to the final between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park, a press conference was called to announce the formation of a rugby triumvirate consisting of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia called Sanzar.

SA Rugby Union president Dr Louis Luyt, who had been called upon by officials of the antipodes to deal with Murdoch’s heavy hitters, announced a sponsorship of $555 million that was the precursor to the formation of the Tri Nations, Super Rugby and rugby going professional.

Lomu’s shock death just 20 years on, at the age of 40, drew validation from all over the oval world that without him this might not have happened.

Every player who today draws a big salary has the big All Black to thank.

Lomu came from a humble background, born to Tongan parents in the poor area of south Auckland.

He was to become New Zealand’s first millionaire sportsman, but glittering fame came with a downside. In his prime, he was struck down by a kidney disease (nephrotic syndrome), which meant he had to undergo a transplant and submit to daily dialysis treatment.

His best years were the World Cups of 1995 and 1999 and, as veteran Kiwi journalist Lindsay Knight put it on the New Zealand Rugby Museum website: “Considering he was under a severe health handicap, it is really remarkable that he achieved so much.”

Knight added: “Lomu was sensational in the exalted heights he reached in his two glory seasons, with a physical presence no one has ever quite managed before or since.”

* Meanwhile, just a day after Lomu’s passing, New Zealand rugby announced an anticipated farewell of a different kind when captain Richie McCaw, arguably the greatest All Black of all time, announced his retirement.

McCaw (34) played in a record 148 tests (of which he won 131) and his swansong was when he became the first man to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time when New Zealand beat Australia in the recent World Cup final.

* Also, on Wednesday, legendary Springbok centre John Gainsford passed away aged 77 following a long battle with cancer.

Gainsford established himself as one of the greatest centres of his generation, earning 33 test caps and scoring eight tries in a Springbok career between 1960 and 1967. He played a total of 71 Springbok matches, including tour matches.

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July 15 2018