What was rugby like before Jonah Lomu?
If we start with his position out there on the flank, such was the All Black’s seismic impact 20 years ago that you’d be forgiven for the memory playing tricks. It’s not true that every winger previously was a wallflower; it only seems that way.
Possibly wingers in rugby, in your picture of the pre-Lomu past, were a bit like goalkeepers in football and the last to be picked. They’d be despatched to the touchlines to get them out of the way, as much for their own safety as anything. Scrawny, speccy, sensitive, they’d rather be gambolling with a butterfly net, but participation was compulsory, even for the weakest. Still, there was little chance of them being involved in the play, never mind hurt, as the ball would rarely travel all the way along the backs, so they’d stand there, knock-kneed and shivering and longing for the match to end.
And all wingers were called Fotherington-Thomas, like the dreamy sap in the Molesworth books.
Obviously, that’s schools rugby, not the man’s game which Lomu then turned into a superman’s game. But such was the power of his running – built like an electricity sub-station, he could move a good bit quicker than one – that even rugby’s established wingers, when they came up against him, were made to appear diffident, puny and of little consequence. Lomu could use them all for doormats.
Before the 1995 World Cup, who thought that England’s Tony Fotherington-Thomas, brother of Rory Fotherington-Thomas, could be bulldozed like that? The Cape Town semi-final was rugby’s Pele moment, with a young man announcing his arrival in sensational fashion. Lomu bouncing the hapless Fotherington-Thomas Minor into the first row of the stand was the equivalent of Edson Arantes flicking the round ball over the bemused Swede with the severe haircut before volleying a goal to help Brazil win football’s World Cup in 1958.
When Lomu burst on to the scene and through tackles in South Africa’s tournament, he raised the profile of the winger’s role, from Dunedin to Duns and everywhere the game was played. Small boys actually volunteered for the wing, rather than be sent there, and big boys will have stretched themselves a few inches taller, enjoying the glamour Lomu had bestowed on the position.
No one was quite as big as the great veld rampager, of course, but very soon many tried to be. That competition hastened rugby’s professional era, something which required the arrival of its first true superstar. To win matches, it was agreed, you needed to bulk up hugely and now there was plenty of time to effect the body transformation. Instead of two nights training a week on top of a regular job you could spend all day and every day down the gym and call it your life.
Lots of wingers were resembling middle-row forwards and everyone was trying to run through opponents like Lomu, rather than round them. Some of them could. For a while it seemed exciting. The razzmatazz of professionalism encouraged this thought. A sudden, dramatic injection of money makes everything brasher. Rugby internationals became like Hollywood blockbusters. You watched for the hits, the explosions. But blockbusters exist to provide instant gratification and the “thrills” are quickly forgotten. Thus, rugby got big and brutal and at times boring.
Now, I’m not blaming Lomu for that state of affairs. He didn’t ask the world to copy him. He played the game the only way he knew how and he did it brilliantly. But suddenly rugby was all about power. Some of the light and shade got lost, trampled underfoot.
There is hope it might return. We’ve just witnessed a terrific World Cup where South Africa’s wildebeest – not such a daft comparison given the history of Springboks players bringing down wild animals as part of training – were immobilised by the crafty Japanese. But rugby, which has to be concerned by claims it’s now too violent, needs more sidesteps – remember them? – and less smashing on through.
One of the great joys of this job is meeting veterans from the pre-professional era. To a man they wish the current generation well, but lawyers who used to break bread and squeeze half-time oranges with lorry-drivers don’t envy today’s players their one-dimensional lives and sometimes can’t resist mimicking the grunt ’n’ groan of the everyday gym-bunny.
What does rugby do – enforce a limit on the number of bench-presses? This seems unlikely considering golf never bothered to slow down the club technology which has made a mockery of our great courses. But these are matters which will no longer trouble the great Lomu, images of whom enjoying the World Cup with his sons were just too poignant.
The tributes were superb with a procession of foes queueing up to say it was a privilege to be mown down by him. By all accounts he was a very humble man.
He created rugby’s superstar world then left it to others to toss dwarves, jump off ferries and pose hunkily on men’s magazine covers with pneumatic flibbertigibbet girlfriends – all before they’d laid down significant bodies of work as players.
Such are the opportunities and perils of modern professional sport. RIP, big man.