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Jonah Lomu: How He Changed the Game of Rugby Union Forever

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2015

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 18:  New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu (C) breaks away from the tackle of England's skipper and captain, Will Carling, on his way to scoring a try after two minutes in their World cup semi-final at Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa, 18 June. Looking on, is English fullback Mike Catt (R). Lomu scored three tries, and in the first half, the All Blacks lead 25-3. AFP PHOTO  (Photo credit should read VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images)
VINCENT ALMAVY/Getty Images

There are very few sportsmen who can justifiably be said to have changed the way their game was played forever.

Ed Moses’ 13-stride pattern between each barrier of the 400m hurdles was unheard of before the American adopted it to dominate his event for a decade, per the Guardian.

Michael Jordan’s God-given abilities forced rule changes in basketball, and generations that followed modelled themselves on the Chicago Bulls’ No. 23, per the Sports Archive Blog.

Dick Fosbury’s backwards flop over the high-jump bar in 1968 transformed that discipline for good, per the Guardian.

And Babe Ruth’s awesome power with a baseball bat led to changes in pitching rules, and his aura caused a hike in player wages, per ESPN.

Each man left an indelible mark on the pursuit at which he excelled, and each man's sport was never the same after him.

Jonah Lomu, who died on Wednesday at the young age of 40, as reported by the BBC, belongs rightfully in their company.

Until he burst onto the scene in 1995, no one had ever seen or imagined a wing who married his size with his speed.

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After trampling England with those four tries in the World Cup semi-final of that year, Lomu became an overnight sensation, and massive men who had hitherto only ever been regarded as candidates for the back row were suddenly seen as potential wings, capable of wreaking havoc on their opponents.

Lomu’s former All Blacks team-mate Justin Marshall said, per BBC.co.uk: "He was a freak of nature at the time. He was 110kg but could run like the wind. Having that on the end of your chain rather than in the forward pack was a revolution of the game"

The fact he was the first of his size to pull on the No. 11 jersey is his true legacy to the sport, as Joe Ritchie of the New York Times wrote:

Lomu’s impact on the modern game can be seen in the number of big, powerful runners who followed him — though none have reached Lomu’s stature — like Mathieu Bastareaud, the French centre, Sonny Bill Williams, the New Zealand utility back, and the Australia fullback Israel Folau.

That his death is being afforded column inches in a newspaper from a country with only a passing interest in the sport speaks volumes of the reach Lomu had beyond rugby’s traditional heartlands.

Add any number of massive Tongan, Samoan or Fijian wings to that list of names. They have all been reared as heavy-hitting wide men in the mould of Lomu, though none have combined their size and speed with the nimble footwork he displayed.

His style was summed up by former newspaper columnist Peter Fitzsimmons, per abc.net.au: "He was a freight train in ballet shoes. Other players could go through players, other players could go around players, Lomu could do it all.”

The Guardian’s Gerard Meagher agrees: "Lomu was a pioneer for rugby union. He raised interest to levels not witnessed before and his legacy can be seen every time George North or Julian Savea, two modern day wing behemoths, take the field."

If his physical attributes and the way he used them set the template for a new type of rugby player, Lomu’s standing at the time as the only individual of his ilk also left its mark on not just the players to come, but the fans who watched the sport.

Ask any rugby fan of the Playstation era what their game of choice was and they will tell you it was the one that bore the All Black’s name.

No rugby player has since had a game named after them, and in much the same way as we have seen countless players try and fail to put their size and speed to the same devastating effect on the field, the developers who followed Codemasters’ 1997 Jonah Lomu Rugby could never replicate the same sense of fun offered by that game, per Foxsports.com.au

This columnist began university a year later and can vouch solidly for the fact there is a generation who owe their degree grades to time spent on Lomu that should have been dedicated to dissertations and revision.

If Lomu changed the way wingers were built and had the biggest profile any player has ever possessed, the third element to his legacy has to be what he did for the game as a whole.

His emergence coincided with the dawning of the professional era, and there is good reason to suppose that the growth of the game around the world as a professional sport would not have happened in the same way without its own global superstar.

At the following World Cup in 1999, English fans in particular were keen to see if the man who had wrecked their dreams four years earlier was still as deadly a force. They got their answer at Twickenham.

He followed that up with a monstrous display against France in a semi-final the All Blacks somehow contrived to lose. No one thought that would be the last we saw of Lomu in World Cup action, but then we didn't know how serious his kidney condition was.

There was no one else capable of spreading the sport’s name and values as far and wide as Lomu. The outpouring of tributes in just about every news outlet on the planet since his death is testament to that.

Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga perhaps put it best, per the New Zealand Herald: "He single-handedly, I believe, put rugby back on the map. We've got to make sure we understand that and respect that. You go anywhere and, although the All Blacks are huge, the one player they talk about is Jonah Lomu. That's who they know."

In many cases, it takes the passing of time following the death or retirement of a sports star to objectively measure their impact on the world they inhabited.

Even Moses, with that incredible 122-race winning streak, was conscious long after hanging up his spikes that his true quality had gone underappreciated, per this quote he gave to the Guardian in 2003, some 15 years after his Olympic swansong in Seoul: "Maybe in the years to come, people will understand the things I have accomplished and realise, "Wow, this guy was really something. Nobody's ever going to do that again."

In the case of Jonah Lomu, it would be perfectly apt to remove the first 16 words of that soundbite. In our assessment of his talent, we have already arrived at the point Moses was still waiting for.

From the moment he bulldozed his way into the public consciousness, we knew we were watching someone we'd never see the like of again.

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