As everyone is aware I don't care much for rugby union. It's boring, elitist and it appears to spend large chunks of its time and resources trying to eliminate rugby league. I watched half an hour of the rugby world cup, and that was only because it was on in the pub in the lead up to the Super League Grand Final.
Yet the passing of All-Black legend Jonah Lomu this week has reminded me of a different time. Years ago, before I wrote a 12,000 word dissertation which all but proved the pro-union bias of the British tabloid newspapers, I was as entertained as everyone else by the exploits of the giant New Zealand winger. He transcended rugby union in many ways, but the way in which he casually humiliated the toffs in the England team during the 1995 world cup was joyous. He just ran over them, showing them up for the princess-dating wet blankets that they were. And it was all so effortless. At 6 foot 5 and with the build of a heavyweight boxer, Lomu was nevertheless a sub 11-second 100 metre man able to run not only quickly and destructively, but with the grace of a much lighter man.
In the day or so since his death it has been suggested that he is the greatest winger to play rugby in either code. The only rugby league man I can offer up as a challenger for that title is Martin Offiah, and even he started in union. Not many of you will know that in the late 80's and early 90's Offiah was something of an idol of mine. I used to turn up for training wearing a Widnes shirt because of Offiah, still the fastest thing I've ever seen on a rugby field. That early adulation fell in a heap when Offiah signed for Wigan, which perhaps left a gap in the market for a free-scoring superstar who shredded opponents. Enter Lomu.
But more than just his try-scoring and subsequent trophy-hoovering endeavours, Lomu is remarkable for the fact that he did it all while suffering from a serious kidney condition. As I write this it hasn't been confirmed, but Lomu's untimely death at the age of just 40 is likely to have been caused by that condition. He was diagnosed with it at the age of 20, yet managed to defy it to the extent that he became one of sport's all-time greats. That's pretty inspirational stuff, especially to this 40-year-old who complains about having to take a few tablets each day in order to lower the blood pressure and hold off the threat of further kidney deterioration. It's not really comparable to what Lomu went through. He had a kidney transplant in 2004 while still in his 20's, a peak time of a professional athlete's life. That kidney started to fail seven years later in 2011, and by the time of his death he was enduring six-hour dialysis sessions three times a week while waiting for a second transplant which never came.
We never saw him in rugby league despite rumours of a switch to Wigan or Leeds as the game went fully professional soon after Lomu's explosive world cup performances. Yet it says something about him that he managed to make rugby union entertaining to this league-centric observer, and that he did so while fighting a brave and inspirational battle against the filthy disease that appears to have taken him so young.