Saturday 21 September 2019

Tony Ward: Jonah Lomu's death part of an extraordinary week for New Zealand rugby

New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu, regarded as the game's first global superstar before kidney disease ended his career, died unexpectedly on Thursday aged 40
New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu, regarded as the game's first global superstar before kidney disease ended his career, died unexpectedly on Thursday aged 40

Tony Ward on Saturday

Even by the country's exalted standards, it's been an extraordinary few weeks for New Zealand rugby.

Whatever the cultural and historical reasons, there is no doubt that rugby has a status in the national psyche way beyond anywhere else in the world. To tour New Zealand is to experience an extraordinary fanaticism. I don't think it is overstating that love affair with the oval ball when describing rugby as the country's greatest national asset.

So, from the highs of World Cup success to losing its two most iconic figures for very differing reasons in a matter of weeks has been difficult, for not just rugby-daft New Zealanders but for rugby fans the world over, to take in.

To describe Jonah Lomu as the greatest rugby star the world has seen is not understating the reality one bit. He wasn't the greatest winger, never mind the greatest all-round player, but in terms of global fame and in taking rugby to new places, he truly was the code's first, and perhaps so far only, global superstar.

We would like to think Brian O'Driscoll, our greatest exponent of the game, is up there alongside but the reality is that, to the world at large, the majority, who wouldn't know one end of a rugby ball from the other, the name Jonah Lomu struck a chord.

He was to rugby what Pelé, the great Brazilian, has long been to soccer worldwide and I have no doubt that had he reached a normal life-time expectancy, he would have developed into that ambassadorial role even more. Big in physique but bigger in charisma and sensitivity, he was the world governing body's greatest asset going forward.


It might seem a strange analogy given their respective sports and the type of roles they played but there were parallels between the manner in which Lomu and David Beckham carried themselves when representing rugby and soccer on the world stage. Amazing, too to think that the most iconic figure to date in world rugby was bigger in status abroad than he was at home.

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But the bottom line is of a young man taken away too soon. Yes, he was a sporting superstar but he was also a husband, a dad and a giving human loved the world over. He will be sadly missed but never, ever forgotten.

So, too in a playing context will be Richie McCaw. He is also a global superstar and iconic rugby figure if not quite at the same level as Lomu.

Yet, as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen rightly described him, McCaw is not alone the greatest All Black captain but the greatest All Black.

That is some statement but having led his country to two World Cup competitions in a row on the back of 148 caps, picking up three World Player of the Year awards along the way, the case for immortality rests. Factor in the position he played for the best part of 14 years and you are talking about one incredible, rugby-playing Kiwi.

When I see the 'McCheat' stuff pedalled, specifically in relation to living offside at the breakdown - the lifeblood of any flanker - it raises my respect even more.

"Referees are intimidated by him", is the usual follow-on comment. Give us a break. Yes, he played the game on the edge but so does every other flanker, only nowhere near as well.

For McCaw, unlike Lomu, the rest of his life is just beginning. His retirement was well flagged and yet despite the obvious tributes paid to the great wing (who passed away just 24 hours before) at the official New Zealand Rugby Union conference, I was surprised it went ahead.

I guess there is no definitively right or wrong way to handle these things but my gut feeling suggests that putting the McCaw retirement announcement on hold would have been the more appropriate way to go.

Something doesn't seem right about tributes coming in celebrating McCaw's retirement at the same time as others in recognition of Lomu's passing.

Life goes on, I know, but sometimes a little pressure on the pause button and maybe a different choreography might not have gone amiss. It has certainly been an emotional roller coaster ride for every New Zealander.

The same could be said about Leinster Rugby but in a very different way.

Last week's no-show against Wasps caught most people by surprise, myself included. It wasn't just that they lost and by the eventual scoreline but it was the manner of the performance.

I thought Leo Cullen was exaggerating the return of the dozen or so players from World Cup duty when he described the process of reintegration as akin to "learning a new language". Unfortunately, that is precisely how it appeared.

Whatever else we witnessed it wasn't 20-something players reading off the same page.

It would be too easy to scapegoat Dave Kearney for his loss of concentration that led to the Christian Wade try that turned the tie, but where was the communication and cover for that speculative kick just in case?

I have little doubt that a lot of soul searching has taken place in the past few days and that a much different Leinster will take the field in Bath this afternoon. Whether it will be enough to win and keep interest in the Pool of Death alive, I'm not so sure.

They may not be firing on all cylinders but Bath, under Mike Ford and despite all the controversy surrounding Sam Burgess and his move back to NRL, are a different competitive animal in recent times.

Judging by Wasps' showing in Dublin, England's World Cup players have reintegrated seamlessly, albeit with a fortnight's advantage over Ireland's national elite.


No one suggested it likely to be easy for Cullen and his newly-installed management team but even he was taken aback by the paucity of the RDS horror show.

The loss of key players through injury, specifically Mike McCarthy, Rob Kearney, Sean O'Brien and Richardt Strauss (although Sean Cronin is still good enough to challenge Rory Best for the green No 2 in my book) and now Jack Conan too, is massive and yet there is enough talent and experience in this Leinster squad to cope with such losses.

The return of Rhys Ruddock, Cian Healy, Isa Nacewa, Ben Te'o, and Luke Fitzgerald, specifically the latter three, brings that gravitas and cutting edge so clearly absent against Wasps last weekend.

Bath have George Ford steering the course and boast a potent back three in Semesa Rokoduguni, Matt Banahan and Anthony Watson.

Opportunity knocks for the promising former Newbridge starlet James Tracy off the bench, while for Hayden Triggs it offers a first start in Europe.

Tracy is part of a replacement line-up geared for impact right through to utility back Zane Kirchner.

I would have liked to have seen Luke McGrath given a start his but it's clear the main man has gone for the old guard on the basis of what is already a visit to 'last-chance saloon'. Leinster will perform but Bath may prevail.

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