And these years were, indeed, early. Jonah Lomu, among many other things, was the youngest ever All Black in history at the time of his debut in 1994. As he stepped onto the field a mere 45 days after turning 19, he broke a record that had stood for almost 90 years.
He was born in 1975 to Tongan parents and, like many kids that were raised in Māngere, Auckland, Lomu was exposed to a lot of gang-related and domestic violence, losing a cousin and an uncle to attacks. This was the catalyst that spurred his mother to send him to Wesley College. Here, thanks to his sheer size and unbelievable speed – he could run the 100m sprint in about 10.8 seconds (which is practically Olympic speed) – he rightly intimidated the dickens out of all of his opposition.
He was built like a vending machine, and by the time he was 12 could already pass as a young adult. It’s unsurprising then that, a few years later, he was picked to represent New Zealand Under 19’s in 1993. The next year he was selected for the Under 21’s. It was during the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994 that he properly came to the rugby world’s attention.
It was 1995 when Jonah Lomu was selected to represent New Zealand in rugby union, and pulled on the hallowed black jersey for the first time. As we’ve said, as he set foot on the field that day he broke a record that had stood for almost a century. His youth was apparent in this game, for although he had electrifying pace and trying to tackle him was like trying to tackle a runaway fridge on wheels, he was naive when it came to positioning, and was shown up a bit by the his more experienced French counterpart.
It was the Rugby World Cup competition in 1995 that cemented Lomu as a great rugby player. In particular it was his phenomenal performance against England that put his stamp on the world stage. He had only played two tests before his third test – and first World Cup game – against Ireland in which he scored two tries. Then all of a sudden he became a household name by scoring that try against England – the one where he evaded two defenders before unceremoniously running over Mike Catt. We’re not using the term “run over” as a bit of colourful imagery here either. Lomu quite literally ran over the top of the poor man, like some sort of cartoon steamroller going over Wiley Coyote.
What was really incredible, was that Lomu wasn’t even that fit whilst he was playing at this time, due to the kidney disease – nephrotic syndrome – that had yet to be diagnosed. We can only guess the havoc he would have wreaked had he been 100%.
The routine destruction and embarrassment of his opposing defenders became par for the course, and when you just stop and consider the size and speed of the man it’s not hard to see why. He was young and strong and fast. He weighed 120kg and was 195cm tall. When you pair this with the fact that he could move faster than anyone else on the field, it’s no wonder he literally flattened opposing team members. Being his opposite number was reportedly a miserable task.
We can only speculate as to how many records Jonah Lomu would have broken had he been spared illness and played out a normal playing career. Although in 2002 he had to bow out of international rugby because of a sudden worsening of his kidney illness – a turn that actually required him to undergo a transplant – he is still the sixth highest scoring All Black of all time.
His record of eight tries in a single tournament – that ripper of a World Cup in ’95 – has only been equaled, and not beaten, by Brian Habana of South Africa and, most recently, by fellow All Black Julian Savea in 2015.
His still-standing record for the most tries scored in World Cup rugby (15) was also equaled by Habana. Although, Lomu managed the feat in just two World Cups, whilst Habana played an extra tournament to tie the score.
In his 63-test career he scored 37 tries. That doesn’t require mathematician skills of the highest order to calculate that was almost an astonishing two tries every time he walked out on the field.
Not only was he a World Cup champion, but he also won a gold medal with New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games in 1998.
With the new millennium, the year 2000, came another one for the Jonah Lomu highlight reel in a game that was billed by some as “The Greatest Game of Rugby Ever Played”.
In the end Jonah Lomu was nothing less than one of the best to ever pull on the black jersey. It’s a testament to his strength and courage that he continued to play rugby right up until just before he was hospitalised for the last time. Although he was taken far too early from the world, it can’t be denied that he shone for a little while, and gave rugby players all over the world a level of skill to strive towards.