The rise and fall of the great wing

FOR a man who has been for some years the best known rugby player in the world, Jonah Lomu has suffered some harsh assessments of his ability.

Certainly it has to be said that Lomu was at his playing best in only two seasons, the World Cup years of 1995 and 1999 when in each he emerged as not only the All Blacks’ star player but the dominating personality of each tournament.

His performances in each explain why Lomu has become such a rugby phenomenon and a folk hero even if some of the attentions paid to him by the trashy gossip type media have inevitably worn thin on rugby purists.

But in human terms the Lomu story has undoubtedly been a fascinating one containing elements which could be packed best into an absorbing larger than life novel.

For one, Lomu came to fame from humble origins, of Tongan parentage raised in Mangere, one of the poorer areas of Auckland, to become arguably the first New Zealand sportsman to become a multimillionaire while remaining there.

And for another there was the kidney illness, Nephrotic Syndrome, which affected him when he should have been at the peak of his playing powers and which eventually when he had to undergo dialysis treatment brought his career to a premature halt.

Considering that for most of his playing days Lomu was under a severe health handicap it is really remarkable that he achieved so much.

His illness has also made it a little more understandable that very often Lomu struggled to get anywhere near the exalted heights he reached in his two glory seasons of 1995 and 1999. But in each of those Lomu was sensational, with a physical presence no one has ever quite managed before or since.

At his best, which was when he first burst onto the New Zealand rugby scene as an 18-year old in 1994 and then in the two World Cup tournaments, Lomu was virtually unstoppable.

Standing 1.96m (about 6ft 5in) and weighing up to 120kgs (between 18 and 19 stones), Lomu in top physical condition could run 100 metres in around 11s.

Given space and room he was a nightmare for much smaller defenders and the image of him trampling over England’s Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup semi-final will be one which persists through the next few decades.

Statistics don’t do full justice to the impact Lomu made in New Zealand and world rugby.

But they do illustrate the contrasts in his career between his two magnificent World Cup years and the rest. Of the 37 tries he managed in his 63 tests more than half (20) were scored in the 1995 season and in the 1999 World Cup tournament.

Yet Lomu came perilously close to missing the 1995 tournament altogether. All Black coach Laurie Mains had despaired of getting him up to sufficient fitness when he had failed miserably to meet the high standards imposed at a punishing training camp early in the year. Only after Lomu had been returned to sevens rugby where he came under the influence of Gordon Tietjens, his selection colleagues decide to revise their plans to include the giant wing.

In 1994, having starred in sevens rugby, Lomu aged only 19 years 45 days, the youngest man to play test rugby for the All Blacks, was blooded in two tests against France.

But against the well organised French Lomu’s positional play and defence were found wanting, which was perhaps to be expected. For until then most of the rugby Lomu had played at secondary school and age group levels had been as a loose forward.

Lomu’s inauspicious start in test rugby, plus his fitness worries early in 1995, meant that the All Blacks were able to spring him on an unsuspecting world in the tournament in South Africa.

He played superbly in the opener against Ireland and in five matches he scored seven tries including four in the All Blacks’ stunning semifinal win over England.

Further test apperances in 1995 against Australia, Italy and France gave him 12 for the season.

But in 1996 came the first sign of his health problems and those plus an injury saw him miss the tests against the Springboks on the tour of South Africa.

Confirmation of his kidney condition meant he missed most of the 1997 domestic season though he returned in time for the end of year tour of Wales, England and Ireland. He achieved another distinction in 1998 when he won a gold medal as part of the sevens team at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

But both in that year and for much of 1999 he struggled to regain his old majesty, often being exposed by clever tactical kicks making him turn awkwardly.

In 1999 he was used for the All Blacks in domestic matches only from the bench and was even relegated to the New Zealand A side.

But at the World Cup tournament he was as formidable as he had been in South Africa four years previously.

He finished with eight tries from his six appearances and scored a matchwinner against England in the pool match at Twickenham which was as good as any of those of 1995.

Lomu also scored two tries in the semifinal against France and was one of the few to emerge from that disaster with his reputation intact.

Lomu remained in New Zealand All Black squads up until 2002, even though form fluctuations returned and there were many periods when other talented outside backs like Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga and Doug Howlett looked more dangerous.

When he was clearly battling for pace and confidence Lomu dropped out of the 2003 Super 12 early and soon after what many had suspected was confirmed … his health problem had worsened.

He made a brave attempt to resume first class rugby with Wellington for the 2003 NPC and made an appearance in a representative friendly with Taranaki but it was soon clear that returning to top rugby, though not definitely ruled out, was unrealistic.

Lomu finished with 185 first class games in which he scored 122 tries. He had 73 games in all for the All Blacks of which 63 were tests.

Despite his legendary status he achieved relatively few honours at the first class level just below internationals.

He had 59 Super 12 games (22 for the Blues in 1996 and 1998 playing in the team which won the inaugural title in 1996, eight for the Chiefs (1999) and 29 for the Hurricanes (between 1999 and 2003).

For Counties-Manukau between 1994 and 1999 he played in 28 games and for Wellington from 2000 there were 21 games, with the highlight being the win in the NPC first division final when he scored two of the side’s tries.

In 2003 at the International Rugby Players Association’s awards ceremony Lomu was presented with a Special Merit Award.

IRPA gave Lomu the rare honour which only two players, Jason Leonard and John Eales, had previously received – for his contribution to the international game.

Lomu was presented the award by one of his heroes, French great Serge Blanco. Lomu said he was extremely humbled to be given such an honour and added that it meant even more to him coming through recognition from his fellow players.

More Stories