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The Jonah Lomu trophy: Renaming Rugby World Cup would be wonderful memorial

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Jonah Lomu relaxing in Marseille in 2009.

Image credit: Eurosport

ByDesmond Kane
18/11/2015 at 14:22 | Updated 18/11/2015 at 18:12

Jonah Lomu was a rare specimen in professional sport, a figure whose name became bigger than the game they played. Especially in a glorious summer of 1995. His legacy is the growing popularity of Rugby Union witnessed at last month's gripping World Cup, writes Desmond Kane.

Ask not what your sport can do for you, ask what you can do for your sport. To borrow from the famous John F Kennedy inauguration speech, Johah Lomu's outrageous antics in 1995 remains Rugby Union's JFK moment. In sporting terms, and in no particular order, perhaps Diego Maradona, Pele, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson or Tiger Woods have created similar stirs without such an epic sense of explosion.

People continue to forget trivial details at their own leisure in life, but one tends to remember what was happening when this 20-year-old New Zealander Lomu, a behemoth of a lad of Tongan descent, was fascinating millions by impressing himself upon a sport with a strength of will as impressive as his obvious brute force.

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South Africa carried off the 1995 World Cup on their own soil, but so did Lomu. In defeat, he ended the tournament a one-man world champion from a team event, a rampaging, wrecking ball of a specimen out on the wing, who appeared so indestructible it is difficult to believe he has been cut away at only 40, a period in his life when he should be revelling in a stature that death will never touch.

Perhaps it was just a sign of the times, prior to the onslaught of digital media and the outburst of fresh television channels, but there are folk in Timbuktu who will have heard of Lomu without having a vested interest in union.

Jonah Lomu playing against South Africa in 1995's World Cup final

Image credit: Imago

19 and half stone, 6ft 5inch, who could run the 100m in 10.5 seconds. Defences hadn't see anything like him before," said his former captain Sean Fitzpatrick this morning. "He was iconic, and a gentleman. He was an absolute legend of the game - the first global superstar of our wonderful game. He set the world alight at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.

Lomu gave more credibility and heft to rugby union in one glorious summer than anyone since English public schoolboy William Webb Ellis apparently picked up a football and ran with it back in the 19th century. If the origins of rugby and Webb Ellis is the stuff of folklore, so too is Lomu. But then Lomu was a mythical figure who lived in our times.

It is not far-fetched to suggest Lomu enjoyed more joy in 1995 than many will experience in a lifetime. A few memories nostalgically waft under your nose as you hanker after a flavour of yesteryear. In football, there was Jack Walker's Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League in 1995 months after Manchester United's Eric Cantona attempted to roundhouse a fan at Crystal Palace, and Paul Rideout heading Everton's winner against United in the FA Cup final.

There was Nigel Benn's gruesome boxing match against Gerald McClellan. The Shawshank Remeption, every sportsman's favourite film, was in the cinema. Princess Diana conducted a fairly damning interview with Martin Bashir, and there was the battle of the bands. Oasis v Blur. Roll With It v Country House. And then there was Lomu. His one-man massacre of a bamboozled England, in the 45-29 World Cup semi-final in Cape Town, and the downtrodden Mike Catt, Will Carling and Tony Underwood, was every bit as enthralling as the Gallaghers v Damon Albarn.

In football-obsessed Scotland, people were talking about Lomu at a time when Paul Gascoigne had just signed for Rangers.

South Africa's win over Lomu's New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup final and the symbolism of a freed Nelson Mandela inspiring a nation to their most piercing sporting moment is immortalised in the film Invictus with Morgan Freeman portraying Mandela, and Matt Damon playing Springboks captain Francois Pienaar.

Francois Pienaar kisses the 1995 Rugby World Cup

Image credit: Imago

Lomu merits his Hollywood tribute, played by someone like The Rock if you are trying to find a figure of comparable stature. Like James Dean or Elvis, dying young will only enhance the legend however macabre that may sound.

There is certainly a story to be told about a bloke who originally did not make the All Blacks squad for South Africa. Unaware of the health issues and kidney disease that would plague him in later years, coaches initially thought he was unfit.

Lomu never won the World Cup in 1995 or in his second attempt against France in England four years later after the All Blacks self-imploded in the last four despite two Lomu tries. Yet history will not recall his medals as relevant in selling a sport on the cusp of professionalism to the masses.

The Springboks pack who helped deny Lomu his chance of winning the World Cup 15-12 after extra-time at Ellis Park in Jonannesburg could spend years pushing, but would never topple the air of publicity that tailed Lomu.

If his heart failed him due to the kidney problems, the spirit very much lives on. The legacy was seen at last month's World Cup that wound up with England selling 2.47million tickets, exceeding its revenue target of £250million and pumping £1bn into the UK economy. It is a legacy that will see Japan stage the tournament in 2019.

Jonah Lomu was present at the Rugby World Cup trophy tour in August

Image credit: PA Sport

When Lomu was turning out as an All Black in 1995, his sport had an innocence about it. Lomu was ahead of his time, and a figure of our times. Like Maradona dancing through defenders in Mexico 1986 or Ali flooring Sonny Liston in 1965. "I shook up the world," said Ali. So did Lomu.

The good die young, but so do the great. In sporting terms, it is difficult to imagine any protagonist, in any sport, more imposing or inspiring than Lomu.

No disrespect to William Webb Ellis or the World Cup named after the origins of the sport, but his spirit is long gone. Lomu continues to burn brightly, forever enshrined in the summer of 1995.

If there is honour that befits a figure who bestrode his sport, almost on a higher plane than his own aptitude, the Rugby World Cup trophy should be retitled for an All Black who was All Gold. As we discover when recalling men such as Lomu, superstars are born, they are never made.

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