Many of my friends in Asia are often surprised by the fact that although I’ve lived in England for most of my formative years, I’m not much of an “Anglophile.” However, there is one aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture that I’ve adopted and grown to love – that it the game of rugby. For me, rugby union as a game, embodies many of the values of the British and their rougher cousins, the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – namely the ability to tack a few knocks, get up again and somehow play a good game. As I get older, I appreciate the game all the more because, it seems to me that the guys playing rugby union have stayed far more true to the values of what sport should be – namely friendly free flowing competition that brings out the best in people. Although rugby union has become a professional sport, you hear allot less of the “gamesmanship,” “money politics” and “steroid abuse” in rugby union than you get in soccer or American football.
So, it was really sad to read about the demise of Jonah Lomu last weekend (November 18, 2015). Jonah Lomu was, as they say ‘rugby’s first superstar.’ Mr. Lomu was what nice people would call a “freak of nature.” He was physically imposing (6.5 feet tall and over kg). Yet, despite being huge, he was quick and agile. The man could run the 100 metre sprint in less than 11 seconds (pretty darn good for a non-Olympian and bloody amazing for a man that size.)
When Mr. Lomu broke onto the scene in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, he became an overnight sensation. His ability to cut through defences and score tries was sensational. Much as it pains most Englishmen to admit it, nobody can forget the way the English national team got blown away by Mr. Lomu in their semi-final encounter. The images of him leaving Mike Catt and Tony Underwood (English rugby players who are by no means puny characters) sprawling on the ground as they tried to stop the rampaging Mr. Lomu are etched in minds of ever rugby purist.
What made Lomu’s prominence so significant was the fact that he game at a time when Rugby Union was an amateur game. The laws of the game were such that the superstars of the game were simply not allowed to earn a penny from playing rugby. The laws on amateurism were such that the ruby players weren’t even supposed to make money from endorsements through the fame of playing rugby. At best, one could use rugby union was a means of getting into the semi-pro code of Rugby League or even American Football.
Jonah Lomu’s performance of the ruby union world cup in 1995 helped to bring rugby to the world and attracted commercial opportunities. The Dallas Cowboys, one of the NFL’s most famous sides, offered him $10 million. He was also offered an opportunity to commercialise and profit from the try that he scored against England.
Jonah Lomu turned down the money. He wouldn’t change codes even though the money offered by the Cowboys was far more than what he could have earned in a lifetime of playing ruby (even today, rugby salaries don’t even come close). He said quite openly that he was there to be part of the All Blacks.
Most interestingly, he turned down the opportunity to commercialise on the image of him running through the English line during the 1995 World Cup – his reason was simple, he didn’t want to cause pain to Mike Catt, the English player that he ran over on the way to scoring that try.
Many celebrities including sports stars to charity work and support causes. Jonah Lomu was more than that. He was a man who turned down greater commercial opportunities for the love of his game and his respect for his fellow players.