Jonah Tali Lomu is a New Zealand-born Tongan who decided to forgo more traditional avenues of athletic endeavors among Pacific Islanders, like pro wrestling and college football, and instead opted for a career in rugby. It was probably a tough decision, being that Lomu ended up at 6-foot-5, around 265 pounds, and was generally stated as running 100 meters in under 11 seconds.
Because Lomu turns 40 today, here are some fascinating facts about one of the greatest players in the history of rugby union, and a member of the International Rugby Hall of Fame and the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
Lomu made his international debut at 19.
The New Zealand All Blacks are one of the most storied teams in rugby history. In 1994, Lomu made his debut for the team at just 19 years, 45 days, which is still the youngest-ever debut. He’s also the youngest player to appear in a Rugby World Cup final, when he was just 20 years, 43 days against South Africa, as featured in Invictus.
Lomu never scored against the South African Springboks.
Despite his proficiency at scoring (he currently sits fifth all-time among New Zealand players and 16th in the world), Lomu never crossed the line against South Africa in 12 appearances. The Springboks smartly game-planned to limit Lomu’s touches and quickly swarmed him any time he got the ball in hand, but he still managed to end up on top, as the All Blacks went 7-5 in those games against South Africa.
Jonah has scored the most tries in Rugby World Cup history.
In his two RWC appearances, Lomu notched 15 tries in 10 matches. This is even more impressive because he sat out two pool games in the 1995 Cup, one of which was against Japan, a game that New Zealand won, 145-17. I’m sure Lomu could have easily scored eight or nine tries in that game alone.
In fact, other than the two games against South Africa, Jonah scored in every single World Cup match he’s played in.
His Rugby World Cup hat trick is the deepest in tournament history.
Since the Rugby World Cup’s beginning in 1987, there have been 49 instances of a player scoring at least three tries in a game. All but two have come in pool play, when strong teams can feast on weaker opponents, like the 145-17 drubbing New Zealand put on Japan (as mentioned above), which featured three All Blacks netting hat tricks. However, Lomu’s sole RWC hat trick came in the semi-finals of the 1995 tournament against England.
Lomu played his entire career while dealing with kidney problems.
Despite only playing one sport, Jonah Lomu is basically rugby’s Bo Jackson, a tremendous athlete capable of jaw-dropping physical brilliance, but had a career cut short. Lomu suffered from nephrotic syndrome, which limited his playing time and ultimately forced him out of the game. In 2004, Lomu had a kidney transplant and attempted a comeback, but was never up to the same level during his early days.
Also, like Bo Jackson, Lomu was a terrifying force in the digital world. Team Lomu, comprised of 15 Jonahs, is the most devastating squad in any rugby video game.
He jumped straight from rugby sevens to full international 15s rugby.
The typical path to playing on a national team like the New Zealand All Blacks is to play 15-a-side rugby in school, join a local team, get scouted by a regional outfit, possibly get signed to a pro team, either to a Super Rugby squad (which didn’t exist in 1994) or perhaps a Northern Hemisphere team. Instead, Lomu dominated at Sevens rugby and got snapped up to play on the main All Blacks squad.
While Jonah did play for Counties Manukau, his local team and also for the New Zealand under-19 and under-21 squads, it was his sevens play that first put him in the international spotlight. Also, if a 20-year-old Lomu was too tough for full grown men in the 1995 World Cup, how terrifying must he have been to teenagers?
His replacement is still being sought.
The most telling of all for Lomu’s legacy is that the All Blacks haven’t found anyone to fill his cleats since his last match in 2002. Several wing players like Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu have shown flashes of brilliance, but nobody has been completely dominant on the field like Lomu.
With the 2015 Rugby World Cup coming up in October, Julian Savea, who already has 30 tries in 33 matches, is being talked about as the next Lomu. Incidentally, in five games against South Africa, Savea, like Lomu, has not yet crossed the try line.