Welcome to The Cult, our home of sport's best and most bewildering athletes. This week we're welcoming a rugby player whose unstoppable force redefined the game. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: The New Model
Once upon a time, deep in the mists of the past, I thought rugby was the only sport that mattered. My parents' house was a two-minute walk from the stadium of Northampton Saints; going to watch Saints games was something concrete I could do with my dad, so I did it at every opportunity. I sent off to Kyran Bracken, then England's first-choice scrum-half, for an autograph; I had Saints jerseys, I had England jerseys.
Then Euro 96 happened, I drank of the sweet, addictive pain that is England losing penalty-shootouts for the first time, and that was that. But I still remember instantly my favourite two players from my time watching the Saints – Matt Dawson, the scrum-half, and Nick Beal, the full-back. Both England internationals, and both with faces that could best be described as wily. As opposed to the faces I see now when I look at the backlines of pretty much any rugby outfit going, whose eyes are akin to the two finger-holes on a bowling ball.
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It's sad that the apex of a team of wily, thinking players – from Richard Hill to Lawrence Dallaglio to Matt Dawson to Jonny Wilkinson to Will Greenwood – won the second World Cup trophy ever clinched by this fair island, but that now, in the name of what's supposedly progress, what you're looking for when you pick a guy at centre is one for whom the nickname 'The Human Bowling Ball' can fit comfortably on his heaving shoulders. And what a treat it's been for us! The most recent World Cup final, in 2011, when the new model held total sway, gave us an 8-7 scoreline that had me flicking onto other channels before the end of the first half. And the responsibility for that must be laid at the feet, themselves some 6 feet and 5 inches away from his head, of one man.
Entry Point: Low
It's an irony that the tedium of rugby in the fully professional era, when guys diverting as much energy as possible away from their brains and into their biceps smash into each other in order to gain a few yards, and repeat, was initiated by about the most exciting thing I ever witnessed on a rugby pitch. England, full of whippy fleet-minded players like Jeremy Guscott and the Underwood brothers, played Australia in the previous round of the 1995 World Cup, which I assumed meant they'd lose. Then Rob Andrew kicked a drop-goal in the last seconds, and they won. I was ecstatic. Next was New Zealand, in the semi-final. This should be fun, I thought.
It was obliteration. My belief up until then was that rugby players could tackle rugby players. Now there was a guy that no-one could stop, who made England seem so painfully of the amateur era, with their baggy jerseys and red cheeks and a slightly aggrieved sense that Jonah Lomu wasn't playing by the rules. He scored two tries in either half, and most of them involved just running straight at England players, thus moving them out of the way. He was 6 foot 5, 18 stone, and could run 100m in 10.8 seconds. The new model was set.
It's nonsense, obviously, to imagine that even then the average rugby player was small. But you were still aware of a disparity in size across the pitch, which meant that while some players used their bodies, others had to use their brains to get ahead. What Lomu set in motion was, in the most literal sense, an arms race. The jerseys turned from baggy to skin-tight to accentuate the swelling upper-bodies, and as the finite amount of energy a human has to distribute switched from picking angles and creating space to looking for the nearest object to smash into, the game got boring. Get the ball from the back of a ruck, smash into something. And repeat. Someone kicks it. Someone kicks it back. Someone smashes into something. That's how it looks to me anyway. And the dwindling returns in World Cup finals, from 20-17 in 2003 to 15-6 in 2007 to 8-7 in 2011, seem to bear that out. God knows you can imagine rugby boys being susceptible to the philosophy that biceps will save the day.
The Moment – World Cup Final 1995 vs South Africa, Johannesburg.
With every action a reaction, and all that. England were caught cold in the semi by the arrival of something they'd never seen before; South Africa were not. Their 15-12 victory over the All Blacks was a victory for one thing alone: professionalism. Not allowing the yawning gaps out wide where Lomu could build up steam, getting straight up to the attacking line as one to smother them, ensuring that every time Lomu touched the ball at least two South Africans were next to him. Then, kick your penalties and hope. And it worked. Lomu was an irrelevance in that game, rugby's most exciting player nullified by professionalism. That's not to detract from the effort and levels of concentration it took from the Springboks to make the plan work; to essentially accept that you weren't going to enjoy this game, the pinnacle of your sporting career, but you were going to lift the trophy. The World Cup Final as a grind. How's that for progress?
For England in the semi, a side where many of the lineup were still moonlighting as security consultants and, if I remember the letterhead on Kyran Bracken's autograph right, solicitors, it was a game, and they were annihilated in a contest still alive in my memory 20 years later. For South Africa, it was a job, and I had to watch the whole thing through on YouTube just to be reminded of what happened. So, pros and cons on that one.
In the aftermath, sport proved its transcendental worth, again. It followed no script – the two ensuing World Cups featured a French team that didn't know its arse from its elbow when it came to professionalism, but played scintillating attacking rugby all the way to the final, and then in 2003, England's perfect combination of thinkers and movers. Neither competition were heirs to Lomu. But they all are now, a world of demarcated carrier-impact zones into which human bowling-balls on strictly calorie-controlled diets are fed to bash out 8-7 scorelines in the showpiece events.
Final Words on Member #11
"Do I jump on top of him, or do I do the traditional… so I thought I'll do the traditional tackle, and he just ran straight over the top of me really." Mike Catt, explaining his thought-process as Jonah Lomu approached him for the first time.
"He may not have played like that for a long time in his career, but he showed people what the future of the game could possibly be like." Jeff Wilson, All Black 1993-2002.