It has been a year of triumph and tragedy for all involved with New Zealand rugby. There have been dizzying highs – the retention of their World Cup title, a glorious conclusion to the All Black careers of several all-time Rugby Union greats and the continuation of the All Blacks’ utter dominance of global Rugby Union – but equally there have been some crushing lows, in particular the tragic losses of legendary All Blacks Jerry Collins and Jonah Lomu.
Collins, renowned as one of the hardest and most committed tacklers in the history of the game, tragically lost his life in a car accident alongside his partner in June while Lomu passed away after suffering from a chronic kidney condition that had plagued him for years and was one of the reasons behind his early retirement.
While Collins’ premature death sent shockwaves throughout the Rugby Union community, Lomu’s death has had a deep impact on the world beyond rugby. Such was Lomu’s iconic status among fans of Rugby Union and so famous were his exploits that tributes have been paid by dignitaries as esteemed as Queen Elizabeth II. Collins was a hero to fans of rugby across the world; Lomu was a genuine phenomenon and perhaps one of the most outstanding sportsmen of all-time.
Lomu’s death will rightly be seen as a tragedy because he leaves behind a young family, but there will equally be much sadness at the loss of a man who inspired a generation of young New Zealanders to embrace their national sport; a sportsman who is one of the few people who can genuinely be said to have revolutionised their sport in their own lifetime in the modern era.
In the wake of Lomu’s tragic passing, many have reflected on his seemingly immeasurable contribution to the storied history of Rugby Union but few have truly done justice to the monumental part he played in the evolution of Rugby Union into the modern, professional game we know today.
Lomu was not just an icon but also a revolutionary kind of athlete and a one-man blueprint for the modern day rugby player.
From his early days at school, Jonah Tali Lomu was a phenomenal all-round athlete and he carried this on throughout his sporting career. It was this incredible athleticism and the marriage of speed, power, and endurance that enabled Lomu to scale the heights that he did, and it is perhaps the physical model that Lomu set down for wingers that will be his greatest legacy.
In the wake of his human wrecking-ball act the role and requirements of a Rugby Union winger were utterly redefined. Without Lomu we would not have the archetype of the modern day winger, perhaps best exemplified by Wales’ George North and the heir to Lomu’s All Blacks crown, Julian Savea.
These two players, and the legion of monstrous wingers who have followed the Lomu blueprint since the conclusion of his remarkable career, exemplify exactly the kind of change that professionalisation has brought to modern rugby.
Without Lomu we might never have seen these kind of sweeping changes but after Lomu’s remarkable physical gifts made him the toast of the rugby world and assured him of his place as Rugby Union’s first global superstar, the world of rugby realised that a new kind of player was on the scene – players who combined incredible technical skill with the kind of seemingly inhuman physical prowess that Lomu embodied.
Ever since, rugby has embraced sports science, nutrition, and highly focused strength and conditioning routines which have made rugby the sport it is today.
Lomu’s contribution to rugby, however, goes well beyond merely laying down a unique idea for what a winger could be and the kind of physical attributes a winger could have. Lomu’s famous try against England at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where he ran over England fullback Mike Catt in a fashion reminiscent of a bulldozer crashing through balsa wood, is possibly the most iconic try in the history of Rugby Union and was far from the only memorable moment of the giant All Black’s incredible career.
Lomu was the first true international megastar of Rugby Union and as a consequence he can largely be thanked for the exponential growth in the global popularity of the game in the past 20 years.
If Lomu had remained in Rugby League, where he began his fledgling rugby career, then we might never have seen the incredible scenes at this year’s Rugby World Cup where over a million people travelled to stadiums across England and Wales to watch games.
While Lomu’s influence was obviously most keenly felt across his home nation of New Zealand, it would be a huge disservice to ignore the contribution he made to the promotion of the game of rugby among the young men of the Pacific Islands.
Lomu’s Tongan ancestry and the immense success he had opened the floodgates for the multitude of All Blacks we now see with Pacific Islander heritage as well as promoting the game for the national teams of the individual islands. If anyone can look at Samoa’s Alesana Tuilagi in full flight and not see a dreadlocked Jonah Lomu then they might want to book an appointment with their local optician.
The one criticism levelled against Lomu, on a purely professional level, is that his statistics do not reflect the kind of achievements you would expect of a man for whom the title of legend is so easily thrown around.
Admittedly, Lomu’s try-scoring exploits do not seem that far out of the ordinary. 37 tries in 63 caps is no mean feat but in itself is not that remarkable, especially not in comparison with some of the other legendary New Zealand wingers or current All Black man-mountain Savea.
However, such comparisons fail to take note of two crucial things.
First, that Lomu played his entire extraordinary career while suffering from a debilitating kidney illness which no doubt hampered his incredible ability and led to his decision to retire in 2007, aged only 32.
Second, it fails to account for the sheer amount of influence Lomu could exert on a game without making a statistically meaningful contribution. Teams that faced up against Lomu knew that, if given the chance, he could bulldoze his way through their defence and this undoubtedly led to more than a few tries for his teammates.
Jonah Tali Lomu finished his career as one of the all-time greats of not only his chosen sport but of world sport in its entirety.
He may be gone tragically soon, but his legacy lives on in the form of his heir apparent Savea and equally in every crunching hit, bulldozing try and moment of magic that we are lucky enough to see in today’s Rugby Union.