Lomu’s indelible mark

Jonah Lomu may be gone but his unique contribution to the game will never be forgotten, writes JON CARDINELLI.

On 18 November 2015, Lomu passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. The former All Blacks wing had battled a rare kidney disease since 2002. And yet, according to reports in New Zealand, his death came as a shock to family and close friends.

It hasn’t taken long for the sad news to reach the greater rugby community. Tributes have poured in for the big man on social media. Former teammates and opponents have expressed their sadness. Most have used this opportunity to remind everyone, and especially the next generation, what Jonah Lomu did for rugby.

Even now, more than 20 years after he rocked the 1995 World Cup in South Africa with his unique blend of belligerence, speed and finishing, Lomu commands respect. For those among the younger generation of Springboks who didn’t face him on the Test stage, there is nothing but reverence.

Bryan Habana has surpassed every South African winger before him. His try-scoring feats will ensure that he goes down in history as one of the greats. Habana is one of the giants of the game. And yet he will never measure up to Lomu.

That is not the opinion of this writer, but of the Bok No 11 himself. Habana scored three tries against the USA at the recent World Cup in England. That feat boosted his overall tally to 64, and his World Cup-try count to 15.

Habana now shares two World Cup records with Lomu. The South African scored eight tries at the 2007 tournament to equal Lomu’s milestone in 1999. The more recent hat-trick against the USA saw Habana drawing level with Lomu for the most World Cup tries. The numbers suggest the two are equal in some respects. In Habana’s mind, however, Lomu will always be a class apart.

It was interesting to hear Habana speak about Lomu in the wake of that match against the USA. The Bok winger retold the story of how he attended the 1995 World Cup final as a young fan. Being part of the 60,000 crowd at Ellis Park was a special experience. The moment when then South African president Nelson Mandela handed Bok captain Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup inspired Habana to become a Test player.

Lomu, said Habana, was something else. Lomu was a player who fascinated and frightened in equal measure. Lomu’s impact on the 1995 tournament, through his tackle-busting runs and especially through that try against England in their semi-final, captivated a global audience. Even though Habana was a South African, he couldn’t help but be inspired by Lomu’s game-changing contribution.

Many other top rugby players feel the same way about Lomu. He will be remembered as a legend’s legend.

I had an opportunity to interview Bok captain Jean de Villiers in Cape Town earlier this year. Afterwards, De Villiers informed me that Lomu was in South Africa to shoot a documentary. De Villiers was excited to show me a picture on his phone of himself and the former All Blacks winger.

I asked De Villiers what he thought about the Lomu vs Julian Savea debate. His reply was short yet powerful: ‘There is only one Jonah Lomu.'

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen believes that Savea has already surpassed Lomu on several fronts. Hansen feels that Savea has more weapons in his attacking arsenal. The incumbent All Blacks No 11 recently eclipsed Lomu for Test tries, and equalled the record held by Habana and Lomu (eight) for the most tries in a single World Cup tournament. Savea also has a World Cup winner's medal, something that eluded Lomu and the past generation of All Blacks.

All of which is not relevant to the argument. Again, this is the opinion of Savea himself, who was asked the question in the buildup to their 2015 World Cup semi-final against the Boks.

Did he feel that he had surpassed Lomu? The question itself said much for the psyche of a rugby media, and indeed a greater rugby community, that is still obsessed with Lomu some two decades after the 1995 tournament. Savea was sincere when he said Lomu would never be equalled or bettered.

Lomu’s records and stats may eventually be bettered, but nothing will change the fact that he was the first of his kind and rugby’s first true superstar. He didn’t emulate anybody else at that 1995 World Cup. He left an indelible mark as Jonah Lomu: a giant whose attitude and ability were in perfect alignment, a player who invaded the minds of the opposition and a player who was nearly impossible to stop.

Twenty years from now, people will still be talking about Lomu bulldozing England fullback Mike Catt in that 1995 semi-final at Newlands. People will still be making comparisons between Lomu and the next No 11. They will talk up the next youngster with a similar combination of power and pace as if he could possibly live up to the legacy.

Again, the debate itself should be seen as a tribute to Lomu. The comparisons have been made since Lomu retired from Test rugby in 2002. They will be made in the wake of his death, and on the 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries of that unforgettable 1995 World Cup tournament. Lomu’s impact on the sport will never be forgotten.

Photo: Ben Radford/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli