Former Scotland coach Jim Telfer has paid tribute to the late Jonah Lomu, describing him as a man who “revolutionised” rugby on the pitch and was “a gentle giant” off it.
Lomu, who tragically died on Tuesday after a long battle with a kidney condition, scored a try at Murrayfield in the 1999 World Cup quarter-final, which was Telfer’s final match as Scotland coach. In total the colossal winger scored six tries in six Tests against the Scots and also bagged four in one game for the Barbarians against them in 2001.
I consider him to have had a similar impact on rugby as Tiger Woods had on golf in that he opened up the sport to a whole new audience. That will be his legacyJim Telfer
Telfer spoke of his sadness yesterday after hearing the news that Lomu had died at the age of 40.
“I remember when he came on the scene in 1994 and to me he was the one player who changed the game as we went into the professional era,” he said. “He had started out as a back-row forward but the coaches thought he maybe wasn’t hard-working enough so they put him on the wing.
“Because of his size, athleticism and ball skills he revolutionised wing play. You see now that often the centres and wings are the biggest guys on the field and it was Lomu who started that trend.”
Telfer said that Lomu was unaffected by his superstar status and was a gentleman off the field.
“Whenever I met him I was struck by his modesty,” recalled Telfer. “He was the most famous rugby player in the world and worshipped wherever he went but he was a typical All Black – humble and full of humility.
“He would always speak about the team rather than himself. He was a real gentle giant. It is so unfortunate that he has died at such a young age and it is a great loss for rugby. After he stopped playing he was a great ambassador for our sport. When he was over here for the recent World Cup he seemed fit and well so it was a real shock to hear the news that he had passed away.
“I consider him to have had a similar impact on rugby as Tiger Woods had on golf in that he opened up the sport to a whole new audience. That will be his legacy – all those rugby players today and coming through who were inspired by Jonah to play the game.”
Lomu’s exploits at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa – including a try-scoring quarter-final performance against Scotland in Pretoria – had propelled him to stardom and all eyes were on the Leviathan No 11 when the All Blacks arrived at a rain-lashed Murrayfield for a last-eight clash four years later.
As well as Telfer’s swansong it was to prove the last appearances in a Scotland jersey (fluorescent orange on this occasion) for Gary Armstrong and Alan Tait as Lomu helped New Zealand to a comfortable 30-18 victory.
“In that game he only scored the one try against us but I remember feeling he could score every time he got the ball,” said Telfer. “Our winger Cammie Murray would dine out on the fact that he scored against Lomu late in the game – dummied and side-stepped him and beat him for pace he will tell you – but, of course, the All Blacks were out of sight by that time and the game was gone.”
Telfer said that devising plans to stop the 6ft 5in, 19st phenomenon was a near impossible task.
He said: “We used to try to combat him with numbers, have three or four tacklers on him, but even that could be hopeless, he would just hand people off.
“Facing the All Blacks is hard enough at any time but when you added Lomu on top of great players like [Andrew] Mehrtens, [Christian] Cullen and [Jeff] Wilson, well, it takes it to a whole new dimension. Even when he wasn’t scoring tries he was wreaking havoc and creating space for others.
“In tight games he could just take it away from the opposition. If the All Blacks were in trouble, they had that option to just throw the ball out to Lomu and watch him go. He was remarkable.”