To most Canadians rugby is a fringe sport. We are aware of it, we may watch a few games here and there. Chances are we know someone who plays rugby or maybe we played it ourselves. But to say it’s a popular sport in Canada would be a stretch. In the mid to late 90’s I watched a lot of rugby. My girlfriend at the time played for our high school team. In 1995 we watched quite a few World Cup matches together. That was the year the world discovered Jonah Lomu.
6’5″, 260 pounds, as fast as a sprinter, as strong as a bulldozer, nothing could stop him. The try he scored against England where he simply ran over Mike Catt is one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen. He was just 19 years old when he made that team.
At the end of 1995 Lomu was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a severe kidney disorder that eventually ended his career and led to a kidney transplant in 2004. Sadly on November 18th of 2015 Lomu passed away suddenly at only 40 years old.
I was travelling between Auckland and Wellington that day. I first heard the news as I was packing my bags to head to the airport. When I arrived in Wellington you could almost feel the sadness in the air. Imagine Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe passing away at 40. Canada would be devastated and this is how it felt in New Zealand.
Being in the country during something like this was surreal. As I walked around town everyone was talking about it. Flags were lowered to half mast, even New Zealand’s parliament took time to talk about it during question period.
The next day I wanted to pay my respects but there wasn’t any news on where I could do it. I found out New Zealand Rugby’s headquarters was within walking distance so that’s where I went. In a small office building hidden on the forth floor there was a memorial and a book to sign. It felt strange standing in line to write a message to someone I never met, someone bigger than life who had left us so young.
While I was there a group of school children came in for a tour. New Zealand had just won the World Cup 2 weeks prior and they had the trophy in their display case. Without white gloves or guards they opened the case, took out the World Cup trophy and let a bunch of grade school kids hold it. It was awesome.
I wrote down some words, I cried, and I left. Jonah Lomu was a connection to a part of my life that is long gone. To lose that connection and be in New Zealand when he died is something that affected me more than I could’ve imagined.
Sky Sports dedicated one of their TV channels to Jonah Lomu for days after his death. They played highlights, full games, interviews, all day and all night with no ads. I watched it every night before I fell asleep. I saw the haka performed so many times I think I know the words now. When I hear it I get choked up.
I have never considered myself a serious rugby fan. I was always just a casual observer who, at one time, had a connection to the game. The way Jonah Lomu’s death moved an entire country to tears and made a Canadian visiting on holiday cry is a testament to what he meant to the game.
Rest in peace big man, you will be missed.