Paul Thomas

Big and Bigger - Jonah Lomu

Dec 5, 2015 | Canon Media Award 2016, Sports

Jonah Lomu’s death was a reminder of sport’s essentially ephemeral nature and its paradoxical capacity to engage emotions and transcend race, language and geography.

New Zealand Rugby and Richie McCaw contemplated delaying the announcement of his retirement. The departure of the greatest figure in our national game was a big deal, but it’s not a matter of life and death.

On the other hand, Lomu’s global fame was based on doing what generations of rugby players have done since William Webb Ellis, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football…took the ball in his arms and ran with it” at Rugby School in 1823.

But no-one had ever run with the ball quite like Lomu. He wasn’t the first supersized wing to light up a World Cup – that was John Kirwan in 1987 – and the suggestion that he was the prototype Pasifika All Black overlooks Bryan Williams and Michael Jones. However, images of Lomu on the rampage – colossal, exotic, athletically freakish – thrilled the world.

Coinciding with rugby’s shift to professionalism, a transformation in which he was one of the prime movers, they provided rugby with a globally relevant iconography it had hitherto lacked. Footage of McCaw winning a breakdown turnover would leave the uninitiated cold, but who wouldn’t be riveted by the sight of Lomu scattering defenders like ninepins on his way to the try-line?

Then illness struck and the narrative took on a tinge of tragedy. The way Lomu coped with nature’s cruel trick, the grace and courage with which he lived life in the shadow of the dialysis machine, transported him beyond the realm of sporting heroism. He became a symbol of the human qualities we most admire. He was loved.

Apart from in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 World Cup quarter-final disaster, McCaw never displayed the vulnerability that evokes feelings beyond hero worship. Indeed, there was something machine-like about his unbelievable consistency, his imperviousness to physical assault, the combination of will and endurance that drove him, enabling him to go as hard in the last minute as the first, the hunger to prevail that never dimmed despite success and the accumulation of silverware on an unprecedented scale.

When the world looked at Lomu, it saw a symbol of humanity. When the world looked at McCaw, it saw a symbol of the All Blacks. And because the All Black aura is envied and sometimes resented, McCaw was often a lightning rod for the equivocal feelings the team inspires beyond these shores. The more flak McCaw attracted from foreign opponents, fans and media, the greater his stature at home.

Thus an Australian columnist could write that “throughout it all, [McCaw’s] wondrous hair was ruffled only by Quade Cooper who was in turn hated in his former homeland as if he had executed Bambi in prime time.” Wrong: Cooper wasn’t hated for committing rugby’s equivalent of lese-majesty; he was despised for taking repeated cheap shots at someone who was ten times the player and the man he was.

The Aussie displayed a similar misunderstanding of both McCaw the player and leader and New Zealand rugby by suggesting he was a Darth Vader-like figure whose mysterious, vaguely malign powers propelled the All Blacks to victories they shouldn’t have gained:

“The void left will be galactic, psychologically as well as tactically. In his absence the Wallabies could borrow one of the Sith Lords’ famous lines as they try to win a Bledisloe that hasn’t been on our soil for more than a decade: ‘There will be no-one to stop us now.’

I think they’ll find there will be.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.

Jonah Lomu photo by BigPip