Gone – never to be forgotten

IF you love rugby and its relatively recent history through the establishment of the sport’s World Cup, then no doubt you would have been swept away emotionally – perhaps even the warm trickle of a stray tear – by a TV presentation last Wednesday morning on Channel 201.

If you loved the sight of all-time great All Blacks wing, Jonah Lomu, in full flight you will have loved the programme shown in honour of the rugged New Zealander, who died earlier in the week, all the more.

It had everything you could wish for including an informative interview of Lomu by Joel Stransky, the Springbok who helped keep the dangerous, charging All Black at bay through cleverly placed kicking and the drop-goal that finally stole the World Cup from under the All Blacks’ noses.

Back and forth went the repartee of the two great players, with typical warm chuckles from the New Zealander, paying tribute to the Boks’ defence – “Woops! And there they took me by the ankles again” – referring to Stransky and his young opposite number, James Small, whom many had feared he might not be up to the task of holding the burly All Black in check.

Last Wednesday, at the age of 40, Lomu died in Auckland after battling with kidney problems for 20 years. His chuckling acceptance of that World Cup final afternoon was typical of the great player’s attitude towards the game he loved and played so well.

It was rugby – always rugby to the bitter end for the big fellow. His interview with Stransky came from London, where the two great players were attending the World Cup.

Among the many tributes pouring in since Lomu’s death the NZRU president, Steve Tew, has described the man and player as “probably the game’s first superstar.” And no wonder. At his best this rugby giant was 1,96m and 120kg. A giant no less. His influence on rugby the world over was illustrated on the front page of the Irish Examiner last week by a front page illustration. It featured the All Blacks’ Silver Fern against a black background, with one leaf falling away. Below were the words, “Jonah Lomu 1975-2015”.

A tribute to Lomu in the New Zealand Herald showed just how highly he was rated. It read: “If he’d been concocted in a lab by the finest scientific brains, they wouldn’t have been able to match nature’s genius.”

On his first sight of Lomu in 1955, Small recalls: “He was huge. Who’s this brute of a lock? I thought. Then I heard he was a wing. Oh, wow! It’s the guy I’ll have to mark if we reach the final!”

In that South African-held World Cup he was frequently referred to as a “freak”. The remark was never meant as anything but the highest praise. He was dropped after his first two tests against France in 1994, and barely made the Test squad in 1995. But then set the rugby stage alight.

In the same 24-hour period last week, Springbok centre, John Gainsford, aged 77, died after a long battle with cancer.

Danie Craven once said: “I think you could say he was one of the very best centres I ever saw – perhaps even the best.” He won 33 Test caps during a career that spanned 1960-1967. He played 71 matches for South Africa, including tour matches. He scored two tries during the 1962 British Lions tour of SA that contributed signally to the Boks’ 3-0 series victory. Two fine men, two fine players gone to rest.

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