Lomu: Rugby's only global superstar

HARARE - The heartless angel of death has visited the one-time wonder-boy of rugby union, Jonah Lomu.

Lomu has just passed on, untimely, in his beloved New Zealand, generating shockwaves of disbelief across the world of sport. In his youthful prime, Lomu was a compelling, rugby tour-de-force.

At the time of his revelation, Rugby World Cup 1995 in South Africa, his bull-in-china-shop rampaging type of play, the world had never seen before, in the brute sport played by refined gentlemen who, unlike soccer's largely uncouth players, exhibit heavenly respect for match officials.

Speaking of such good character, the Guardian newspaper called Lomu, "a gentle, generous soul".

He is gone, at a mere 40 years of age, just as his life was beginning, as some would say.

Inapplicable to Jonah that; as in his one short lifetime, he achieved what another top player would have dreamt of achieving in a dozen lifetimes put together. His extraordinary life story can never be told in one book, let alone a tribute column.

I will try nevertheless, with this feeble attempt, akin to England's poor Mike Catt trying to bravely tackle down steamrolling Jonah from head-on, but only leading to worried gasps as the sorry Catt was mercilessly trampled by the Lomu juggernaut on his way to scoring against England, "the most-astonishing try", as described by pundits in rugby union football. In that 1999 World Cup semi-final, like a try-scoring machine, Lomu dotted down a massive four tries.

But the all-powerful, speedy Jonah was, ultimately, only human. He has succumbed to a chronic kidney ailment. By every measure though, off the rugby field, he was an amazing gentle giant; soft as wool, with a heart of gold. Many will remember his recent compassionate visit to support Joost van der Westhuizen (at his Johannesburg home) ailing from the debilitating Motor Neuron Disease.

Joost, as he was popularly called in his fiery rugby-playing days, was now a pale shadow of his bombastic former-self, widely-acknowledged as possibly the finest rugby number 9. But Jonah's visit was so huge, so inspiring, it was carried by most top news agencies and TV channels across the world.

Joost's awe-struck family said they had no words to describe the unsolicited, spectacular gesture. Best foot forward, sport is colour blind.

Lomu's words to Joost were powerful, tear-jerking. It would appear, at that time, that the ailing Joost would be the "first to go", but you could never say with this unpredictable life. Lomu has indeed breathed his last but will remain unforgettable to rugby union. I will remember him fondly as I had an uncanny, personal connection to him.

See, my old, one-time rugby aficionado friend, Temba Mliswa was always an enigma, but I understood him better than most people. At my family home, in Glen Norah, just after Rugby World Cup 1995 and the fable of Lomu was being told everywhere, Mliswa would spend extended, occasional periods of time talking to Jonah Lomu on our landline phone, years before mobile telephony dazzled Zimbabwe.

Where Mliswa got Lomu's private home number, I never knew. I never asked. Well, I joined in on the happy act.

Somehow, Lomu seemingly enjoyed chatting, not about rugby really, but inquisitively about Africa, about Zimbabwe. Needless to say, at the excitable, unrestrained rate we were going on the long-distance Group 3 calls with our idol Jonah, the line eventually got cut - for good.

Russell Karimazondo, a powerful Zimbabwe 7s rugby player at the turn of the century has told seemingly tall-tales of our Zim lads trepidation, following an on-the-pitch encounter with Lomu at the 2001 World Cup 7s when Zimbabwe paired New Zealand in a fiercely contested pool game in Argentina.

The same interesting stories have been retold by local rugby idol, John Ewing, who played in that historical match.

Ewing marvelled at Lomu nonchalantly breaking off the majority of otherwise text book tackles made by some of the most-accomplished, and fittest Zimbabwean players that included Charlton McNab who was "run over", just like Englishman Catt.

To his credit, the rock-solid speedster, Victor Olonga, was the only Zimbabwean player said to have effectively hit Lomu, flying down the wing, making for the Zimbabwean try line, so hard, he ejected him off the field, and quieted the surprised, full stadium.

It is quite astonishing though, that the potency of Lomu and some of rugby's finest-ever players in an unbelievable New Zealand side of that era, never lifted the Rugby World Cup.

The equivalent would be the mercurial Lionel Messi never lifting soccer's Holy Grail. Possibly, evidence that, when all's been said and done, Jonah was after all, quite human - flesh, bone and all - like the rest of us lesser-mortals, destined to be devoured, ultimately, by the ravenous earth.

"Good night big fella," aptly summed up the Beeb in one of their reports! But what a dramatic life story showing the power of one! Tragic Lomu, the man that revolutionised rugby: 1975 - 2015. So long Jonah!

* Maguranyanga is a former Chimurenga Rugby Club wing and Zimbabwe Rugby Union board member.

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