The late, great Bill McLaren once said that trying to tackle Jonah Lomu was like “trying to tackle a snooker table”. Indeed anything that could be said about Lomu has been – and in Bill’s case, could be said over and over again, as his brilliant commentary loop from the Jonah Lomu Rugby computer game lives on. However, there’s a reason Lomu drew praise from McLaren and a reason why he had his own computer game way back in 1997: Lomu changed rugby forever.
Even to this day, young players talk in awe of the man who bulldozed his way through the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, converting disbelievers into rugby fans as we went. If anything his legend has grown. But in almost every respect his reputation is deserved. Perhaps not due to his feats or titles, but because of what he possessed at the time; he had so many attributes that no other player of the era had.
If more and more players have reached that level, though, it has to be asked: in this day and age, what makes the great players great?
We are in the era of marginal gains, so in the world of professional sport it helps to be as fit as possible.
It’s much easier to reproduce a learned skill – passing, kicking, scrummaging with good technique – if you have the heart and lungs to ensure you are never truly knackered when you come to using them.
Plus, fitness can also mean staying injury-free at the right times. There are some damn fine players out there who may never be considered one of the greats because they never got to perform on the biggest stage.
Okay, so Lomu was massive. He looked like he was carved out of granite…if the granite was able to carve you back. But as the popular myth goes, size isn’t everything.
Sure it helps if you are a 9ft-tall lineout jumper or a one-ton tighthead, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Any size has to be backed up with dynamism, be it a sprint off the mark or fierce momentum in a tackle. Smaller guys can have that, and when big guys shift and maintain their power output, everyone sits up and woofs. Any display of power catches the eye.
Some greats have been piano shifter, make no mistake. But they still performed a few rugby-specific skills brutally well. Tackling around the fringes over and over again is impressive. It’s an art. So is clearing rucks legally and ferociously. Then there is the 20-metre spin pass that could hit the point of a needle. Fantastic box kicks need praise just the same as fine place-kicking. The greats have a phenomenal skill-set honed for years as they stay behind for extra practise, and they become known for doing certain things repeatedly. It’s like their calling card (Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal, anyone?).
Nothing is more impressive than when players can read the game well. That big hit that came out of nowhere is not because someone is just a bosh-monster – the defender sat in the defensive line, studying the attackers, and calculated where the ball was going to be and backed themselves to get there at the right time. . It’s the same when someone steals lineout balls for fun. It’s so rugby smart.
You could say some greats are not the sharpest, if we’re feeling charitable, but they have fine instincts for when to give a pass or for how much weight to put into a grubber kick. And some others are just slavish analysers of the game, who lock themselves away and watch rugby footage for long stretches of time.
The real top dogs have both fine instincts and a studious streak.
That magic moment
When you put it all together, though, it is mostly about timing.
Lomu was a man of his time and his place. That stage was his. He had all the attributes, but conditions suited him too. He had great support in a strong, classy team. He had McLaren commentating on him. He had the right level of opposition. Things worked out perfectly.
At the next World Cup someone may emerge as the true great of this current generation. If they do everything will have to fall into place. And even then, they’ll need that one memorable moment that has punters around the globe snapping their fingers and saying: “remember when so-and-so did that? Gees they were brilliant.”
The greats have that special moment we will all cherish forever.