Jonah Lomu – Rugby’s Pivot Point
Jonah Lomu, whose death was announced yesterday, turned rugby into a different kind of war.
In my muddy recollection of the way things were, Rugby Union before Jonah was the sport I briefly played at school and watched occasionally thereafter. A game full of regulated violence played by guys who were tough as nails, had a strong team ethic and liked a few beers after the game. A game played by men who did it for fun, not money. They were fit, but not to the extent that you would easily be able to recognise their favourite pastime if you met them in a bank, an estate agency or a solicitor’s office. They were salesmen, miners, sheep farmers and accountants.
Many of them – particularly in England – were products of private schools, in which rugby was the winter game of choice. But many more were from countries in which the sport trumped soccer as the national game – Wales and New Zealand for example, where background and social class were less important than the ability to sprint past six opponents determined to bring you crashing down on to the muddy turf. A code of courage, camaraderie, endurance, and refusal to admit to physical pain. A showcase of gentlemanly virtues, of the stiff upper lip. A sport of soldiers, of empire.
Jonah’s arrival changed everything, just as tanks transformed the battlefield of the twentieth century. A six-foot-four Polynesian battering ram, running with the ball not just past, but through, opponents half his size, sending them flying in his wake.
Suddenly – at least looking back it seemed sudden – rugby was no longer the game of my youth. Bulked-up forwards and mountainous backs turned it into a contest of attrition. Just as the First World War was described by those who survived it as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of indescribable terror, rugby at the highest level became a game full of long periods in which players custom-built to resist the likes of Jonah fought out a relentless stalemate up and down the pitch, to be broken now and again by lightning offensives that mostly came to nothing.
The rules seemed to be more complicated. Commentators started to talk about phases, to describe each time an attack came to a juddering halt as defenders swarmed to stop attackers. Line-outs became a matter of who could lift their team-mates high enough to catch the ball. Penalty kickers could mount the ball under a plastic plinth so that they could lift it goal-wards more easily. And miked-up referees shared their decisions, and their reprimands of offending players, with millions of TV viewers. Rugby became a technical game full of gizmos and gimmicks, not just a matter of blood and guts.
The game of empire had become a professional sport, and suddenly, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, we became aware of other places beyond the traditional playing fields where the game was flourishing – Uruguay, Canada, Georgia, Russia and Japan.
Jonah didn’t bring about these changes. They happened gradually over a couple of decades. But for me, watching from afar with decreasing interest, he symbolised the pivot point. It seems so long ago when rugby’s long age of innocence ended. Yet he was only 40 when he died.
The World Cup semi-final of 1995, in which Jonah pulverised England and transformed the game, was the last truly exciting rugby match I ever saw. It all seemed to go downhill from there. But was he worth watching? You bet he was.
If you ask any sports fan under the age of fifty to name one superstar in a sport they don’t regularly follow, they might come up with Messi, Federer, Woods, Magic Johnson, Mohammed Ali and Usain Bolt. Ask them to name a rugby player, and the chances are that they’ll give you Jonah Lomu.
Goes to show once again that it’s not how long you live that makes you immortal, but what you achieve, even in a few short years. I hope that’s a comfort for Jonah’s loved ones as they grieve for a man who died too young.