It is possible that Jonah Lomu was better known worldwide than any New Zealander at any time, even Sir Edmund Hillary. Rugby correspondents have often told us that here in New Zealand we had no idea of the extent of Jonah's fame. He was feted everywhere rugby was played and gave his image to the game. But he was even bigger than that. His face and name became recognised beyond rugby, as familiar to many young sports fans as a Michael Jordan or a Muhammad Ali. His image adorned the walls of sportsgoods stores and the pages of fashionable magazines. He was a superstar.
But to see or hear him in New Zealand, you would not have guessed it. In the best tradition of our heroes, he kept his feet on the ground. He probably liked the fact that he was appreciated here for what he truly was: a freakishly talented rugby player whose career was cruelly restricted by a kidney disease. It must have been hard for someone so robust to be hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week for six hours on end.
In the precious few years he was able to play at his prime, he was so good that he commands a place on the left wing in just about everybody's team of all-time greats. He combined the pace of a winger with the size of a forward and presented a fearsome prospect for a tackler.
As a schoolboy in Wesley College's first XV he was literally unstoppable. Playing at second five-eighth he turned a televised national secondary schools championship match into near farce, running through the opposition to score from almost every restart.
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It was obvious from that day that he would have an extraordinary career. The only question for selectors was the position he should play. He had the physical attributes to excel almost anywhere. All Black coach Laurie Mains rushed him into his side on the wing where the young stripling had barely played before. He did not know the position's defensive demands and had an ignominious debut. But he had the character, as well as the talent, to recover from being dropped, regain his place and make No 11 his own, even shaving it into his eyebrows.
His briefly brilliant career reached its apogee at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa where he did much more than run through and over English tacklers to score the try that has been replayed on television more than any other. His power, physique and star quality that year is credited with convincing Rupert Murdoch to invest in rugby for Sky Television.
The professionalism of the game today, with its higher standards of fitness, training, pace and skill, not to mention rewards, owes a great deal to Jonah Lomu. No wonder he remained on an NZRU contract for years when debilitating illness was making his All Black appearances increasingly rare.
He ought to be remembered not only for his thunderous running with the ball but also for his genuine sportsmanship when a game was over. He had a grace in defeat that has not been characteristic of New Zealand teams. He was a model not only of a rugby player but of a fine man.