In a tumultuous world characterized by unimpeded change, sport remains a perennial constant. An equilibrium that (albeit temporarily) effaces the mundane gloom and misery that is the preserve of every human being. One need not even be a beacon of knowledge for appreciating a particular sport. The sheer act of focus arouses an inherent curiosity, which then transforms into a manifest drive to appreciate the logic underlying the method behind the melee. This fact was taught to me in no uncertain terms by a single individual, who as I write this has decided to call time upon his lambent existence on Planet Earth.
The spectacle of thirty grown up, bustling, impatient men with bulging biceps and broad chests, – who are equally divided into two opposing factions and granted a license to maul, mutilate, and mangle one another to claim possession of a spherical ball, with a committed objective of passing it either side-wards or backwards, all the while running full tilt into a teeming mass of humanity, before finally getting themselves along with the ball over a horizontal line marked in white – initially did not enthuse me or lend itself to any sort of appeal whatsoever. I was content being a cricket crazy fan in a cricket obsessed country where the only visible violence (apart from the inevitable ‘blow to the box’) was that caused by a cricket bat to a cricket ball.
One man, however took hold of my perspective by the scruff of its frail neck and gave it such an impactful shake that “scrum” became the synonym for sacred and “try” transcended beyond being a mere attachment signifying man’s various endeavours spanning his existence. It was the 27th of May 1995 and the occasion, the World Rugby Championship. An accidental flipping of channels on the television transported me to Ellis Park in Johannesburg where an excited match commentator exclaimed in great anticipation that the crowd was now ready for the “Haka”. While the ferocious Maori challenge and the eighty minutes that followed this exhilarating display had me reeling with delight, the poor bunch of Irishmen who were at the receiving end of a wallop were left reeling with more serious consequences. While the entire New Zealand team (I was to, after just a couple more games address them only as the All Blacks) put up a stand out performance, a single individual’s rampaging performance caught my eye and attention.
Jonah Tali Lomu would go on to become my all-time favourite Rugby player and The All Blacks a team that would be closest to my heart.
My resolve to grasp the nuances of this brutal game took nascent wings and before Sean Fitzpatrick’s miracle-men hammered a clueless Japan into complete and unopposed submission (145-17) at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, I was well aware of the fact that it was perfectly acceptable to use the term “hooker”, in the sport, a drop kick by Andy Mehrtens was worth 3 points and most importantly my hero, Jonah Lomu was a “winger!”.
The “Man-Mountain Truck” pulled off one incredible performance after another. With power as a reliable ally, speed as an able assistant, resolve as a steely companion, Jonah Lomu metamorphosed into a wrecking train that brooked no trespassers. Challenges and challengers alike were shrugged away with utter contempt and incredulous disdain. Trying to tackle a marauding Jonah Lomu was akin to hurling oneself in a suicidal fashion against a block of concrete. While his colleagues reveled in his show of might, hapless opponents seem to rebound off him as they vainly tried to initially tug and later hold on to his powerfully sculpted arms and legs. Owning an imposing physique that evoked admiration and apprehension in equal measure, Jonah Lomu was a natural force of destruction. Scotland came and went, and before long All Blacks were in the semi-finals and waiting in the wings for them was, England.
In this remarkable game, Jonah Lomu redefined the physics of rugby. The semi-final, of all things will be best remembered for the phenomenal quartet of tries that Jonah Lomu conjured to kill England off. The unbelievable sight of the English players lying splayed by the feet of Lomu as he ducked, weaved, shrugged and warded off one challenge after another was one that would have succeeded in evoking a collective gasp of admiration from even the phalanx of Gods!
One try in particular where after imperiously shrugging off two English defenders, Lomu charged into, through and over a flummoxed and dumbfounded Mike Catt has now become the staple stuff of legend and folklore. Even after twenty years, the sheer novelty of this bulldozer of a try by a road roller of a man has never ceased to fade. If you do not believe me, just try playing this link on You Tube:
New Zealand were now in the finals of the rugby World Cup and the only thing standing between them and the trophy was 59,870 hollering South Africans in the Ellis Park Stadium and 15 of their admirable counterparts on the pitch. Alas, for once the well-oiled locomotive failed to accelerate and was stopped in its tracks. The force in the form of Jonah Lomu that was unleashed so effectively throughout the tournament came to an unbelievable standstill, courtesy a gritty South African team in general and a class act in the form of a scrum-half bearing the name of Joost Van Der Westhuizen, in particular, the World Cup finals turned into a drop kick affair between South Africa’s Joel Stransky and New Zealand’s Andrew Mehrtens. In extra time, with the scores tied at 12 apiece, Stransky conjured an exquisite drop kick that had an entire nation immersed in a wave of undisguised ecstasy. Jonah Lomu had for once, been denied. For an undying fan of Jonah Lomu, the sight of Nelson Mandela presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to the South African skipper was a gut wrenching moment. It just seemed improbable for someone other than Jonah Lomu and the All Blacks to be the proud owners of the glittering trophy.
Soon after Lomu contracted a very rare and life threatening kidney disorder. But staving off the dangers of the disorder, Lomu made yet another World Cup appearance bagging a total of 8 tries. Reading about his personal life in snatches, I never really made an attempt to know more about the intimate details of the man’s life. Although it may sound strange, I had always envisaged Lomu only as an once-in-a-lifetime winger, sprinting away to glory with the ball held firmly in his grasp. I have not been able to and I will never be able to visualize in my mind’s eye a Lomu other than the one described here. I do not regret this fact one bit.
Since the epochal World Cup of 1995, I have developed a keen sense of interest in tracking the progress of wingers. Every time I see a winger in action, an automatic tendency arises to compare him with Jonah Lomu. Lomu for me is the unchanging yardstick, the sacrosanct threshold and an uncompromising criterion which all wingers have to achieve, clear and satisfy. Two decades after I had the honour of watching the man in full bloom, and excusing my amateurish expertise over the game, I have no hesitation in unequivocally opining that there has been no winger, who could hold a candle to Jonah Lomu let alone surpass him in his remarkable abilities! He was and forever will remain Rugby’s Original Man of Steel.
What a phalanx of adversaries and concerted endavours could not accomplish, the vagaries of life and the machinations of fate have contrived to achieve. 37 tries, 63 Tests and a rare kidney disorder later, the colossus has been brought down. This time as he lays low, Lomu as well as the whole wide world knows that there is no dusting off the grass, shrugging off the pain and bouncing back to have yet another go. Jonah Lomu is lost to us all forever. It is cruel irony that the most poignant and heart wrenching tribute represents the contribution of a man who also has fallen prey to the ravages of a merciless fate. Joost Van Der Westhuizen, Lomu’s much vaunted and respected foe, sent a moving tribute, courtesy an eye tracker, his body being racked by the vigours of a remorseless Motor Neuron Disease. As Westhuizen gamely puts up a fight against the impending advance of pernicious death perched at his doorstep, he might be all too aware of the fact that it is only a matter of time before he follows the indomitable Kiwi. Meanwhile we can only hope that a miraculous cure is contrived to beat the dreaded Motor Neuron Disorder at its own game, which will enable this superstar to point the finger at it, exclaim, “up yours you bastard” and continue leading an enriching and invigorating life.
Athletes like Joost Van Der Westhuizen are rare; superheroes like Jonah Lomu are rarer still. The probability of the world witnessing the likes of a Westhuizen v Lomu encore is much much lower than the probability of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence meeting with stupendous success!
There can be no better words than those escaping the lips of Mary Lou Retton, which both embellish as well as encapsulate the beauty of sport, “A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever”. Joost won the Webb Ellis Cup; Jonah was never destined to put his arm around it.
REST IN PEACE, L.E.G.E.N.D. We LOVE YOU! RUGBY ALWAYS WILL!