By Ravi Nagahawatte
Former All Blacks rugby player Jonah Lomu was a nightmare to Sri Lankans whenever they stood defending their goal line. Lomu, who died on November 18 (Wednesday), might have resembled a train running on a rail track and any defender trying to oppose him could have been likened to a stone, brick or piece of iron kept on this path. You ask any Sri Lankan player whether there was a ball of chance of stopping Lomu and the answer you’ll get is, “Are you crazy?”
Former Sri Lankan sevens specialist and at present an assistant in CR&FC’s coaching team M.J. Mushtaq told www.nation.lk that his teammates might not have feared the All Blacks, but this thinking didn’t apply to Lomu. “I tried to tackle him at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, but my tackle didn’t have any effect on him. The most we could do is grab his jersey, but he would be off in a flash,” said Mushtaq.
He however saw gentle qualities in him off the field. “We were once on a rugby tour and we saw him come off a pool session. We told him to pose for picture and he readily agreed. He is a down to earth super guy,” Mushtaq said.
The diminutive speedster and nippy scrum half Sudath Sampath was a sensation in the field with his side stepping and cunning moves. But he can remember the ‘long day’ Sri Lanka had on the opening day of the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens. The challenge was overwhelming when they knew they were up against All Blacks early in the morning and as Sampath says, “With no place to hide”.
“I think we were the first set of players from Sri Lanka exposed to such huge players. He was a giant, but he had skill, fitness a deceiving side step and most importantly an immense knowledge of the game. This guy didn’t always run through. He could produce tries by following kicks, chip kicks and grubbers. He was a complete player,” said Sampath. The former Sri Lanka sevens skipper said that Lomu was a different man off the field. According to Sampath, the New Zealander didn’t show the mighty hurry he was into score tries when he got the opportunity to mingle with crowds, off the field. “He was willing to talk and pose for pictures,” recalled Sampath.
Two former Sri Lanka captains Asoka Jayasena and Haris Omar both told this writer, some years ago, that they had the opportunity of coming into physical contact with the giant rugby player, while playing against him. Jayasena’s moment had come in an IRB sevens tournament and Lomu had just broken into the New Zealand side. Jayasena had won a line out and peeled off leaving Lomu standing where the throw in took place. Jayasena couldn’t run 10 metres when he felt two iron hands grasp him from behind. He said he almost chocked as a result of the grip around him and when he looked behind he saw that he had fallen ‘prey’ to a Lomu tackle.
Omar was representing Sri Lanka in sevens rugby and the opponents were All Blacks. Just before half time Omar had got his hands around Lomu and brought him down.
Head Coach Sri Lanka Rugby Referees and World Rugby Educator (CMO) Dilroy Fernando features in one of the photographs used in Lomu’s autobiography. Fernando had the honor of running touch in the 1998 Commonwealth Games Rugby Sevens final between Fiji and New Zealand which featured Lomu. “He (Lomu) was in tears after his team won the final. He said that winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal was the highest achievement a rugby player can have in his career,” recalled Fernando.
This accomplished rugby referee said that Lomu was the best player he had seen on a rugby field. Fernando said that he had invited Lomu to Sri Lanka three years ago when the All Black’s player had acknowledged Fernando’s photograph being in his autobiography and had responded by saying, “I owe you one”.
Fernando said that Lomu was even seen at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
His sudden death leaves his fellow countrymen and opponents who feared him with wet eyes.