May 11, 2020 / 6:11 AM / 18 days ago

On this day: Born May 12: Jonah Lomu, rugby union winger

SYDNEY (Reuters) - It was in the third minute of the 1995 World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England in Cape Town that rugby union changed forever.

All Blacks scrumhalf Graeme Bachop picked the ball out of a ruck in midfield and flung a long, wild pass to his left, forcing a 20-year-old winger playing his sixth test to pick it up off the bounce.

Jonah Lomu, all 1.95m and 119kg of him, safely stowed the ball in the crook of his left arm while swatting off Tony Underwood with a flick of his right hand and took off towards the line.

England skipper Will Carling raced across the field and attempted a tap tackle but there was only a stumble as Lomu charged on towards fullback Mike Catt, who was rudely trampled underfoot as the giant winger crashed over him to score.

In that moment, England were beaten and rugby union had its first superstar.

Millions around the world, many who had not previously followed the game, were captivated by the sight of this force of nature, a man who could sprint like the whippets who usually patrolled the wing and brush off tacklers like a number eight.

Lomu scored three more tries against the hapless English on that day at Newlands, and even finishing up on the losing side in a try-less final against South Africa did nothing to threaten his position as the outstanding player of the tournament.

His timing was impeccable. After 172 years of amateurism, the sport turned professional a few months later.

New competitions attracting bigger crowds were created and governing bodies signed lucrative television deals and sponsorship endorsements.

HEALTH PROBLEMS

As humble off the field as he was intimidating on it, Lomu was the game’s hottest property and reaped his rewards but even before the end of 1995 there were the first signs of the health problems that would ultimately kill him.

Lomu suffered from the debilitating kidney disorder Nephrotic Syndrome and treatment meant he missed a handful of matches over the next few years, although he was back at his best for the 1999 World Cup.

Eight five-pointers made him the tournament’s leading try scorer but his two in the semi-final against France were not enough to prevent the All Blacks crashing out in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game.

The third-fourth playoff was to be Lomu’s last World Cup match as his worsening health contributed to declining form and he played his final test against Wales in November 2002, eight years after his debut as the youngest ever All Black.

He finished with 37 tries in 63 tests but those bald statistics do little to convey his enduring impact on the game.

Defensive systems were tightened across the test arena to contain his threat and within a few years the game’s speedy little winger was all but a thing of the past as players right along the backline became bigger and heavier.

By 2003, Lomu was undergoing dialysis for 21 hours a week and a year later he had a kidney transplant.

He kept playing but his faltering health and improved defences meant he was never again the force he had once been. He retired from the professional game in 2007.

On Nov. 18 2015, Lomu died suddenly of a heart attack associated with his kidney condition in Auckland, the city where he had been born to Tongan parents 40 years earlier.

“Jonah Lomu was a giant of a man who leaves a giant space in world rugby,” then-World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said at his funeral.

“He will forever be a big part of rugby’s story.”

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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