The eternal rugby player

Any gentleman of any game deserves mourning when he passes, but a singular figure such as Jonah Lomu merits a unique response. His death doesn’t quite have the sharp edge of tragedy that it usually would for somebody taken at an early age. There is the same depth of loss, but it’s a more nebulous sense of melancholy, informed by awareness of the disease that was a presence for half his life, and which nearly claimed him earlier than this.

Lomu represented something beyond his brilliance and his reputation as a physiological phenomenon. Many people have been queuing up to acclaim his human qualities since he died, an indication of his closeness to the people who support the game of rugby union. The lore of rugby is heavily populated with wistful, nostalgic paeans to this attribute, widely believed to have been lost since the arrival of professionalism. But if Lomu was in one sense a representative of a bygone era, he was also an embodiment of the future. He still is.

He will always be most indelibly associated with the 1995 World Cup, when he announced himself as an athlete far outside of the ordinary. Just before the tournament, I had seen some footage of him playing in the Hong Kong Sevens the previous year. He clearly had exceptional speed, and the strength to brush would be tacklers aside. So there was a little bit of noise about him, but nothing to prepare the world for what would come next. 1995 was the last Rugby World Cup to be played when the sport was still notionally amateur. The sport had been living a lie to some extent for a few years at that point, but it still operated in a different manner to most professional sports. Lomu, though he came along in the final throes of the amateur era, presaged the coming professional era like no other. By the end of that year, the whole rugby landscape had been transformed.

To digress slightly, I’m reminded of comments I heard made about All Ireland hurling finals from the 1960s, after they were broadcast again about 15 years ago. “At the time we thought it was great stuff, but it would only be junior standard now.” So it might appear with many other sports. The difference in the conditioning and appearance of modern rugby players even in the twenty years that have passed since that tournament is palpable. And yet, and yet, watching this footage you see an athlete who hasn’t dated at all. He had prodigious speed and tremendous balance as a runner, able to step off either foot, and he could find great running lines like the best of them. If you looked closely enough, you could see there was technique in those hand offs. Defenders, especially those who tried to tackle him head on, were frequently shunted back. He could be this exceptional despite only operating at 80% of his potential.

The full gamut of diet, training methods, physical conditioning, modern coaching, and so on, usually renders the exercise of trying to compare players from different sporting eras meaningless. Everything is tilted in favour of the contemporary practitioner. Normally. But with Lomu, the prototype for the modern three quarter, every such caveat and conditionality could be stripped away, and he is still better than anybody who has come since. There is simply no modern pantheon worthy of the name that doesn’t include this god, one of history’s transcendent sporting figures.

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