New Zealand
Trailblazer Jonah Lomu redefined rugby for the professional era
Craig Dowd
November 18, 2015
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu dies (Australia only)

Jonah Lomu was a trailblazer.

He showed that a big man over 100kg could play on the wing. It had always been the speedsters, and slighter guys like Terry Wright, who had played there.

But he took what John Kirwan had started and Inga Tuigamala continued, and then redefined everything when he turned up and showed what an impact a player like him could have on a game of rugby.

It was a shock when I received a text message from my wife to tell me of his death.

For someone, who at one stage in his life was invincible, to die at the age of 40 is very sad.

Jonah Lomu rampages through the Samoan defence, 1998 Commonwealth Games, Malaysia, 14 September, 1998
Jonah Lomu was virtually unstoppable in his early years © Getty Images

I was in regular text contact with Jonah. I always reminded him that I made his career because I played No. 1 and he played No.11; so I had to get my left-hand side of the scrum up to give him a bit of space out wide and his whole career had been down to me giving that space at scrum time.

And he thanked me for it. It was just a tongue-in-cheek comment but he was very humble and appreciative and a very special character.

He was incredibly confident, he knew what he could achieve. If anyone said to Jonah 'you can't do it', by God watch out. He wouldn't prove you wrong once, he would prove you wrong 10 times over. And then he would politely say: "Well, there you go."

He looked at challenges and just ate them up.

He would be categorised as our first superstar. We had good sports people through the amateur era but they came with amateur personalities and characters that we all loved.

In the professional era things got different with advertising and marketing and the amount of money behind it. It was all thrust upon him and he was only a young man. You saw him spending more money on his car speakers than many people would put down as a deposit on a house.

Lomu scored the match-winning try in the 'greatest Test ever played' © Getty Images

But he was a young guy who really knew no better. In that era when rugby went professional we were all learning as we went. But Jonah was getting million dollar contracts thrown at him left, right and centre.

I always remember leaving the training field with Jonah and masses and masses of kids would just flock to him and he would stay out there, time after time, and sign every autograph they wanted.

I couldn't do that, and neither could a lot of other players. But it was special the way Jonah handled that. He was a very giving man.

We didn't know he suffered the kidney issues until 1996. There was always something of a question mark around him. We knew he could do amazing things on the field but then we'd get to fitness testing and he failed -- he just couldn't do it.

He pushed and pushed, and never gave up and he was at the point where the average 3km run test was about 13 minutes and we'd all be finished in time and he would come in after about 20 minutes, almost walking.

He struggled to understand what was wrong with his body. It wasn't until we all found out that he had a kidney problem that it all fell into place.

It reached the point in 1995 before the team was picked for the Rugby World Cup in South Africa that I found myself sitting behind selectors Laurie Mains, Earle Kirton and Ross Cooper on the bus as we finished a camp down in Christchurch.

We'd had fitness testing and it was clear that two guys, Jonah and Norm Berryman, were not up to it. The selectors wanted to take one of them to the World Cup, but which one?

New Zealand great Jonah Lomu gets behind the bar at Heineken's #ItsYourCall launch, London, England, August 26, 2015
Lomu only recently starred in a Heineken commercial © Getty Images

I've never forgotten hearing that conversation, by accident, because of what happened on the big stage later in 1995 when Jonah arrived and made such a statement.

Obviously the three wise men at the time got the decision right, and it may be that Norm could have made an impression too, but after Jonah's hesitant season in 1994 he was absolutely brilliant at that World Cup.

He was someone who, if you got him the ball, would do amazing things. He might not always score the try but someone would score off it and I think Josh Kronfeld made a career of being on the back of Jonah Lomu.

It was great having him in your team because you knew when Jonah was there things were going to happen around him and he was probably good for 10 points.

It wasn't until I played against him when he moved to the Hurricanes and Jonah carried the ball and you had to tackle him that you realised the power of the man.

I was lucky enough to only encounter him in close-quarter stuff and not out wide where he could take a real run at me. I defended around the breakdown but he would get involved and pick the ball up and you knew that he was an incredibly powerful guy.

I remember in some trials we had in 1994 he ran down the wing towards hooker Norm Hewitt. I was running behind him in support, but Norm was powerful, strong and a big tackler. I thought to myself, 'this kid is going to get ko'd' but he just bumped Norm off.

From that moment I knew this guy was special because no-one did that to Norm Hewitt.

Rugby fans will be heartbroken by his death and, of course, massive condolences to his family.

He was his own man who dealt with a huge amount of public adulation, and they always wanted more of him. He tried to give as much as he could but they just kept wanting more. He would find ways to tune out. His headphones and music were his escape, although he could never really get away from anyone.

He was so big, you couldn't miss him for a start and he had that recognisable face of rugby's first superstar.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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