Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jonah Lomu, RIP

Jonah Lomu, former New Zealand All Blacks rugby star, was a beast, a global sporting phenomenon in the 1990s who is just about without comparison. A wing with world-class speed in the hundred but built like someone who would be comfortable in the scrums Lomu could run over people but he was just as likely to run through them. The closest American sporting comparison I can think of is Bo Jackson in terms of the freakish things that he did. The closest football comparisons might be a hybrid of Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson, which is to say the ability to run people over while possessing Johnson's "Cop Speed" to run away from them. But he was far, far better at rugby than either of those two very good players ever was at football.

  If you are putting together an all-time rugby XV, the greatest team in the game's history, there might be no more obvious answer at any position than to start by filling in one of the wing slots with Lomu. He first came to the world's attention in 1995 during the World Cup, an event that became famous because of South Africa's home victory, though he had shown signs of what he would become before that. The 1995 IRB World Cup is best known for Nelson Mandela embracing the underdog Springboks who returned from global sporting isolation and helped the New South Africa establish its footing. (And only just "helped," whatever Hollywood and too many journalists would want you to think.) And yet the unquestioned star of that event was Lomu who ran past and around, over and through people. South Africa stopping Lomu was one of the biggest rugby stories of that cup, but he cemented his place in the event's and the sport's history. By the time of his retirement after a too brief career shortened in no small part by the kidney disease that would help take him from us today at the gallingly young age of 40, he held the record for tries at the World Cup with 15,  a number that would only be matched this year by another all-time great, Bryan Habana. (Habana is possibly my favorite player of all time. He would make more than a few all-time squads. And he would start over Lomu on no one on the planet's all-time side.)

Lomu's death is shocking because of his age, and even though it was well known that his disease was serious, hearing about it was stunning, a blow to the solar plexus, like hearing that someone beat up Superman or outran the Flash. Because Lomu was a superhero. A black-clad superhero who could make his enemies quake just by doing the Haka. He is one of my favorite athletes of all-time. If there is an afterlife its rugby team just got a hell of a lot better. And someone on the other team is about to get run over.