Tag Archives: heroes

Jonah looms large

Jonah Lomu Global Sports Forum Barcelona

Jonah Lomu at the Global Sports Forum in Barcelona, 2011. Photo by Global Sports Forum (Flickr)

I don’t much care for TV news now. But when I was a kid, I would be in front of the TV every night at 6:40pm without fail. That was when the sports news was read by Clint Brown, or Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, or Peter Williams, or whoever was in the chair that day.

Sometime in 1993, at the back end of the sports bulletin, there was a brief item about a loose forward from Wesley College named Jonah Lomu. Low-angle footage showed him rampaging to the try line from about half way, first bulldozing his opponents out of his path, then skinning them with speed incongruous with the number 8 on his back. I was eight years old and thought to myself, “Bloody hell.”

A couple of months later, again at the end of the sports news, he appeared once more. “Jonah Lomu from Wesley College continues to make waves in the Auckland first XV competition.” Or something like that. It was like an action replay of the earlier item: Lomu gets the ball around half way, Lomu charges through his hapless markers, Lomu sidesteps the fullback, Lomu outruns the covering defenders. Lomu scores.

A year or so later, after a barnstorming performance at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994, Jonah Lomu was in the All Blacks. A year after that, following his famed exploits at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he was the biggest star in the history of rugby union. Of course I watched all that in rapture, even if that 1995 final didn’t work out the way I (or Lomu) would have hoped.

The next time I really paid close attention to Jonah Lomu was during the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens tournament. This was long before the days of managed workloads and sabbaticals for All Blacks, even for critical first-team players like Lomu. He showed up for the tournament with his normally sleek black hair dyed brown and braided (at least, that’s what my memory of the live telecasts tells me). The new hairstyle made him look older and rougher, more a tank than the speeding bullet of old.

Lomu’s role in the team was no longer that of ‘superstar’. The NZ sevens hero of ’96 — the guy I would run outside to imitate in the back yard — was 20-year-old Christian Cullen, and Lomu worked more to set up tries for his younger teammate than to score them himself. In one match, against an opposition so helpless they might as well not have turned up, Lomu threw an American football-style pass from the left touchline to the right-hand side of the field, where Cullen cantered in for another five points. I sat there, mouth agape, as replays confirmed Lomu’s feat. How could he do that in a rugby match? Surely there’s some sort of law against it?

Before the tightly contested final against Fiji, the broadcasters showed a package of Lomu sevens highlights from the previous year, when he had that familiar jet black crop of hair. They then cut to Lomu live, braids returned to that classic Lomu hairstyle, playfully sidestepping a Hong Kong Sevens mascot with a huge smile on his face. With his hair so short and his grin so wide, he looked like a schoolboy. New Zealand won the match and the tournament, almost single-handedly because of Cullen, but Lomu lingered in my mind: the cool guy who would chuck the rugby ball from one side of the field to the other, and who would muck around with the mascot before a huge final. Everything in his stride. (You can see snippets of the American football-style pass and the pre-final cavorting in this highlights package.)

One more memory. In 1997, my mother, who was almost entirely indifferent to rugby, somehow secured us tickets to a highly anticipated Blues vs Hurricanes Super 12 match at Eden Park. These were the days of the great Blues: Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Olo Brown, Robin Brooke, Carlos Spencer, Joeli Vidiri, Lee Stensness, Brian Lima, Adrian Cashmore, and Jonah Lomu. But the Hurricanes had Christian Cullen and a talented young winger named Tana Umaga. The match was one of the great Super Rugby games, ending 45-42 to the Blues. I think even my mother got a bit caught up in the spectacle.

That — 1997 — was the year after Lomu was diagnosed with the kidney disorder that would dictate much of the rest of his life. He spent most of the Super 12 season off the field, and he failed to score a single try. But he was in the team for that Hurricanes match. The media was full of doubts over whether he would ever be the same Lomu again, both speeding bullet and tank. There was plenty of speculation among the public, too, about whether we’d seen the best of this great All Black. So whenever he received the ball, there was a hush of attention around the stadium. But he didn’t do a lot with it. Normally, he’d just take the tackle and secure the ball for the next phase, rather than trying anything Lomu-esque.

Then, at one point in the second half, the ball was thrown wide to him, deep in the Blues’ territory. With a slim chance to beat his marker — Umaga — on the outside, he suddenly blew past him and sprinted forty metres upfield. It seemed to happen in an instant: one moment he was sizing up his marker, the next he was being tackled in the opposition half. What had we been thinking? Of course he still had it. He might not be quite so damaging any more, but he was still Jonah Lomu.

*

We all knew he didn’t have long. But dead at 40? So soon after yet another busy slate of promotional work at the 2015 Rugby World Cup? I guess he wasn’t the type to give much warning.

The truth is that Jonah Lomu has only intermittently been a part of our lives for over a decade now. His status as rugby-s first global superstar ensured media and promotional work around World Cup time, but for every four years in-between, there might only be the occasional news item about his private life or his treatment; the kind of news item that appears well before 6:40pm in the nightly bulletin. Now that he’s gone, he will be the first item, and the second, and the third.

Almost every New Zealander knows one Jonah Lomu moment, which involves Mike Catt. Others, especially those of us in our early-to-mid thirties, might remember quite a lot more. Lomu was our hero, in the sense that Achilles was the hero of Greece: he did things that none of us would ever be able to. I find it hard to believe that someone who loomed so large during my childhood is dead. Bloody hell. At least we have our memories, and we’re charging through them now, crashing into them, sidestepping them, sprinting past them, as we try to keep the legend alive.

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A note on the death of Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert (Art Shay)

Roger Ebert (photographed by Art Shay)

I’ve tried several times since yesterday to sit down and write some thoughts about Roger Ebert, but every time I found my words inadequate. If you want to read something coherent about the impact Ebert has had on the world, check out A. O. Scott’s appraisal in The New York Times or Chris Jones’ 2010 profile in Esquire. There is Natasha Badhwar’s 2010 post on her connection with Ebert. You could also read my blog post on the release of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself in 2011, which is also inadequate but better than my abortive attempts in the past 24 hours. Best idea of all: spend some time looking through Roger Ebert’s Journal, the blog he maintained for several years to great acclaim. It’s also one of the few places on the internet where reading the comments is advisable.

The point is that Ebert’s work and philosophy have become part of who I am, and it’s impossible to separate his influence from anything I write — and, indeed, from a lot of what I do. He has enriched me immeasurably through his knowledge and empathy. He’s even introduced me to people I now call friends, which is about the best anyone can do.

I am desperately sad at his passing. He was, and is, My Hero. But he remains present in so many of us, and there is still so much more to be done.

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A tribute to Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck © Cricinfo

Former Somerset cricket captain and respected cricket writer Peter Roebuck has died aged 55 in Cape Town. He was covering Australia’s tour of South Africa. Ian Fuge, managing editor for sport at the Sydney Morning Herald, a paper for which Roebuck was a regular columnist, said “Peter was a wonderful writer who was the bard of summer for cricket-loving Australians. He was also an extraordinary bloke who will be sorely missed.” [source]

For me personally, Roebuck’s death signifies the passing of a writing hero. I grew up reading the sports section every morning before school, hoping that if I wouldn’t some day realise my dream of being an All Black or a Black Cap, I could at least write about them for a living. Of all the sports writers I’ve discovered through those years and into adulthood, Roebuck’s byline is the one that will ensure I read the piece. He seemed such a naturally gifted writer, one who could’ve written about any subject he chose but found himself most entranced by cricket. He wrote honestly, never afraid to confront the darker aspects of ‘the gentleman’s game’, One could be certain that nothing less than the highest quality would be attached to his name.

Now that he’s gone, I am of course discovering that his exceptionally high standards were a hallmark of his career with Somerset, as well. From this citation for his being recognised as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1988:

Roebuck in action for Somerset © Getty Images

His current vice-captain, Victor Marks, a friend of many years, said, He seems to thrive on contest, competition and conflict. He rises to the occasion, is very much alive and always reacts in a positive way. He has improved dramatically over the past few years, with the security of his position and the captaincy. He puts a great deal more energy into his job than most people could. Somerset’s coach, Peter Robinson, recalled many hours spent with the bowling machine, ironing out technical faults which he, Roebuck, had found.

Roebuck also contributed routinely insightful columns to Cricinfo. Fellow cricket writer Suresh Menon wrote of his work:

Roebuck’s short commentaries distill a lifetime of experience through history and anecdote. There is a purity in the form that is at once attractive and challenging. Of all cricket writers, Roebuck is the least imitated because he is the most difficult to imitate.

I suspect millions of cricket fans over the coming days will be scouring Cricinfo and the web for information about Roebuck and, like me, discovering things they might never have looked up had he not died so devastatingly young. As much as anything else, this could be a commentary on the incredible value offered by his columns: I never sought to know more of the man to whom such a distinctive, essential voice belonged. His ever-articulate words were enough to form a deep impression – of decent character, of high quality and of deep understanding.

May Peter Roebuck rest in peace, and all his fans continued to inspired by his words for decades after he’s gone.

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Here’s an excerpt from what turned out to be his final column, about the Australians’ performance in an utterly bizarre first test. It is a technically minded piece, not the best representative of his work, which tends to be wide in scope and lofty in ambition. But notice the economy of language with which he makes his points:

Apart from technical flaws, the collapses raised even more fundamental issues. How long can Shane Watson continue as a front-line bowler and opening batsman? History provides few instances of a cricketer able to sustain both workloads. The time is ripe to put him in the middle order.

[…]

Brad Haddin also needs to rethink his batting. His reckless shot was a droppable offence and confirmed his confidence is in his boots. He, too, has a single match to turn around his fortunes. A new broom sweeps clean.

Ironically Johnson, a bowler, is the most likely player to be dropped. However the team for the first Test against New Zealand has become harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.

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UPDATE: I’ve been reading a lot of Roebuck today. Here’s an excerpt from one of his 116 columns for Cricinfo entitled ‘Stuck in the middle’:

As a breed, batsmen are haunted by the prospect of failure. It hardens them, tightens them, sometimes exhausts them. A centre-forward unable to score can still chase and create. A tryless winger can tackle and support. A batsman must score runs: it is as simple and stark as that. No words can protect the player from this truth. His existence depends on his productivity. Arthur Miller could have written a play about it. Every time he goes to the crease, a batsman confronts doom.

[more]

Also, the cause of Roebuck’s death has not yet been announced, so conspiracy theories will surely follow – especially in light of reports that he seen talking with police and ‘in an agitated state’ on the same night. Whatever is written in the coming days, and regardless of what actually happened, I hope everyone can remember that we would do better to mourn a fine writer than play pseudo-detective. I’m sure Roebuck would agree. After all, he wrote in 2007 of his disgust at the hackery that followed Bob Woolmer’s death:

But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts’ initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits. In our own way we were as guilty as those involved in the burning of the witches in Salem or the rounding up of supposed American communists in the 1950’s.

[…] At such times we must be thankful for due process, that a man may be condemned only by fact and not prejudice.

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