"He is a freak, and the sooner he leaves rugby the better.”
Those were the words of England captain Will Carling, after watching the 20 year old Jonah Lomu dismantle his England side, in the semi-final of the 1995 World Cup.
A day that went down in rugby history. A day that changed the sport forever.
Carling was right. Lomu was a freak. So much so that he was recruited by the Dallas Cowboys in early 96 to play pro football.
Unfortunately, a backup/practice squad salary was not enough to tempt Jonah away from his multi-million All Black contract, so he declined, and the rest is rugby history.
My question to you is, would he have been able to make the transition?
Firstly, a bit of background information. Lomu, at 20, stood 6’5", and weighed in at 283 pounds. You're probably assuming that he was some sort of lumbering forward. Think again. He also ran the hundred metres in 10.6 seconds.
Meaning, his 40 time, would probably be somewhere between 4.24 and 4.30.
As Carling said, a freak of nature.
From what I’ve read, the Cowboys had Lomu in mind for two potential positions. The first being running-back, in a Brandon Jacobs mould. The second being Linebacker. They were also prepared to hand out over a million dollars in wages to the New Zealander, so this was no speculative punt.
As a rugby player, Lomu played on the wing. Where his job was to basically receive lateral passes, and run with the ball as far as he could with it. Evading and breaking tackles on the way.
Very similar to a running back receiving pitches.
So the interest as a running back was obvious.
However, although Lomu had played with an oval ball before, he had no experience whatsoever in the NFL. He didn’t even know the rules.
He was very young though. 20 years of age when supposesdly recruited.
His hands would have been excellent—on the basis that he was a professional in a sport in which the entire purpose of the game is catching the ball, and holding on to it.
His collision skills would have also been noted. Rugby players take just as many hits as any running back. And spend years learning “contact skills.” In short, they are experts in getting hit, and not dropping the ball.
As a winger, he obviously had huge speed, and great evasive skills. He was required to break, and evade tackles throughout his entire rugby career.
On one noted occurance, he broke a shoulder to shoulder tackle from a 300 pound forward, to score.
My only issue as a running back is the fact that he had never played the game before. So would have to learn, in probably a few years, all the various blocking, route running, technicalities, that guys like Brandon Jacobs have been doing since they were 8 years old.
However, I have no doubts, that with his unbelievable physical, and technical rugby skills, he could have played as some sort of feature back. Possibly on kick returns, or over short yardage.
The second position quoted, was as a linebacker/end. I assume because he was a 290 pound guy, with Reggie Bush speed. A potentially unblockable player.
Again, physically, I don’t see an issue. He was as great an athlete, in terms of size/speed, as anyone who has played that position in NFL history.
Rugby is a sport where players must be equally profficient at defense and attack. They must break tackles, and make tackles, dependent on who had the ball. Lomu was known as a feared hitter, who rarely missed tackles.
As stated earlier, his hands were excellent.
And he had obvious coverage speed.
Making him, seemingly, the perfect linebacker/end hybrid, in a Demarcus Ware mould.
Again though, this was a man who had never even played a game of pro football. So whether he would have been able to pick up the complexities of beating blocks, coverages, blitzing, play action, is a question that will never be answered.
Wrapping up, I’d say Lomu was the perfect fit for the NFL. Physically, he was potentially the greatest athlete ever to play the game. Never before or since has a guy of his size and speed played an NFL down.
The only problem. He was born in the wrong country. So wasn’t spotted by scouts until he was probably too old to learn the required technicalities.
I think the fact that a top NFL franchise was prepared to offer a roster spot, and contract, to a player who didn’t even know what a “down” was, suggests how physicallly gifted he was.
If he was born in New Jersey as opposed to New Zealand? God help us all.