A Tribute To...Jonah Lomu

Barney Corkhill@@BarneyCorkhillSenior Writer ISeptember 24, 2008

Barney Corkhill's A Tribute To.. series branches out to look at other sports, this time rugby. In this series I look at legends from sport and pay tribute to them.

Today's tribute is for the man who changed the face of rugby. He was a phenomenon, a freak of nature, and an instant legend. No-one has had a bigger impact on the game in such a short amount of time. It is, of course, the man-mountain that is Jonah Lomu.

Jonah Tali Lomu, born on May 12th, 1975 grew up watching, and loving rugby. In New Zealand, a country where rugby dominates, it seemed natural that he would start playing the sport at an early age.

He showed great potential early on as well. However, it wasn't Rugby Union that Lomu was making his mark in. Up until the age of 14, Lomu played Rugby League. Eventually, however, he switched codes and gave Union a try.

By the age of just 17 years old, Lomu was named in New Zealand's under-19 side. His size, power and pace were frightening, and the very next year, at just 18, he was included in the under-21 side.

Despite great performances at both these levels, it was in the 1994 Hong Kong sevens tournament that Lomu began to draw people's attention.

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His form for Counties Manukau in the NPC ensured his place in the side. He was perfect for sevens. Tall, strong and lightning quick.

In a team consisting of the likes of Christian Cullen, who would later also go on to achieve All Black legendary status, Lomu shined brightest.

Cullen and Lomu, along with Eric Rush, led a fearsome New Zealand side, which went on to win the tournament, with a 32-20 win over Australia in the final.

His form in the Sevens tournament, and his continued good form for Counties Manukau, won him a place in the full New Zealand squad.

Aged just 19 years and 45 days, Jonah Lomu was named as New Zealand's winger against France. He became the youngest All Black Test player ever. Unfortunately for him, the French outplayed New Zealand, and won the match 22-8.

Lomu showed small glimpses of what he could do, but the potential was still there and still to be fulfilled. He did well enough to ensure his place in the team for New Zealand's next match. Again it was against France, and again it was a loss, this time 23-20.

Despite losing every game he had played in for New Zealand, Lomu was named in the squad for the 1995 World Cup.

A legend was about to be born.

In his first ever World Cup match, a 43-19 win against Ireland, he contributed two tries. One part of the British Isles had seen this player in near full flow. It would only be a matter of time until the rest did.

Wales were up next and, although Lomu didn't score, he caused havoc before being substituted. It was clear Lomu was a talent. A good find in the World Cup.

In the quarter-final he scored his third try of the tournament against Scotland, helping the All Blacks to a 48-30 win.

The only country left was England.

England were the favourites. Finalists four years previously, and having already dumped holders Australia out, they were the team most expected to win.

But then again, most hadn't seen Jonah Lomu is devastating form.

Despite his three tries, he was still something of an unknown quantity for England. They had heard the rumours. An 18st 12lb, 6 ft 5 in man who could run the 100m in 10.8 seconds. But that was all New Zealand tactics to put England off. Wasn't it?

Four minutes in and the rumours were proved to be true.

Lomu picked up a bouncing ball, turned on the gas, beating two defenders with the help of his deadly hand-off, they stumbled towards England full-back Mike Catt.

The next moment has gone down in rugby folklore.

Lomu charged straight into, over and through Catt, trampling him into the floor. The rugby world had never seen anything like it. A few seconds previously, Lomu had out-paced the England winger, and then he trampled over the full-back. Players were meant to have either great speed or great power. This man had both.

Lomu went on to score another three tries in that match, firmly cementing his place in World Cup history. The man who had celebrated his 20th birthday just one month previously had single-handedly destroyed the World Cup favourites.

South Africa went on to win the tournament, beating New Zealand in the final, but no-one was in any doubt who the star was. With seven tries in five games, Lomu had announced himself to the world.

Will Carling said after the England game: "We tried to stop him but we couldn't...the man is unbelievable...he is a freak, the sooner he goes away the better".

Lomu went into the World Cup an inexperienced, young, and unknown player. He came out a world superstar. He was the biggest thing in the rugby world.

Wins against Australia, Italy, France, Samoa and Scotland all followed, with Lomu scoring tries in most of those games. These matches were leading up to the inaugural Tri-Nations, between New Zealand, Australia, and world champions South Africa.

Wins against both opponents in the Tri-Nations ensured New Zealand became the first ever Tri-Nations Champions.

However, 1996 was to end on a low note for Lomu.

At the end of the year, he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome. His rugby career was put on hold. For almost a year he was out recovering, and attempting to cure his serious kidney disorder.

He returned to international rugby late in 1997 to take on England and Wales. He came through both matches unscathed, and made a successful return to international rugby.

1998 brought Commonwealth Games success, as Lomu was part of the victorious Sevens side. It was all building up to the 1999 World Cup. Big things were expected of Lomu.

During the build-up was the Tri-Nations. Lomu was still looking for the form that served him in 1995 after his brief hiatus from the sport. In one of the games in this Tri-Nations, it took eight players from South Africa's World Cup winning squad to bring him down.

The All Blacks went on to, again, be crowned champions.

The 1999 World Cup came along and the tournament seemed to bring out the best in Lomu again. Two tries in the opening pool match against Tonga, another one against England in the second pool match and another brace in the final pool match saw Lomu reclaim his try-scoring form.

In the quarter-finals, New Zealand met Scotland, with Lomu scoring a try and helping the All Blacks to victory. The semi-final against France was one New Zealand were expected to win.

However, despite another two tries from Lomu, they crashed out, losing 43-31 in one of the best matches in World Cup history.

Lomu finished the tournament as top try scorer, with eight. Those eight tries, added to his seven from 1995 made him the highest try-scorer in World Cup history, with 15, a record which still stands today.

He continued to brush defenders aside for New Zealand and Wellington, whom he moved to after the 1999 World Cup, for the next few years. His consistency was key. Every game he seemed to bulldoze through tackles, or sprint round them.

In 2003, his kidney disease took a turn for the worse. Doctors told Jonah Lomu that he could be facing a life in a wheelchair if he didn't do something soon.

That something was to get a kidney transplant. Fortunately, it was successful, and Lomu was soon on the path to recovery.

However, the Lomu who played a bit-part for the Cardiff Blues was a far cry from the one who trampled Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup.

In 2007, Lomu retired from Rugby. He retired having won 63 New Zealand caps, scoring 215 points. But the impact he had on the game cannot be measured by stats or figures.

Lomu was a phenomenon. The Rugby world had seen nothing like him before, and has seen nothing like him since. I regard him as one of the greatest ever. If injury hadn't robbed him of his best years, he may have become the greatest ever.

But we still got to see a glimpse of the perfect rugby player at his very best. A legend who will always be in the history books, and will stand up against any legend from any country, this has been a tribute to Jonah Lomu.

Click here to see other tributes made by this author.

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