NEW ZEALAND, November 19 – Retiring All Black captain Richie McCaw paid an emotional tribute to Jonah Lomu on Thursday, saying people the world over were hurting after the legendary winger’s shock death.
McCaw said Lomu’s humility even after he became a superstar set an example the All Blacks still aspired to, while New Zealand Rugby chief Steve Tew credited him with saving the game of rugby union.
Announcing his long-anticipated retirement, McCaw opened his Wellington press conference with a minute’s silence for Lomu, who died Wednesday aged 40.
McCaw said lining up beside him on his international debut in Ireland was one of the highlights of his 148-Test career as he had worshipped the player since the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
“I remember watching that World Cup and going into that World Cup final (thinking) ‘just get the ball to Jonah’,” he said.
“That’s the impact he had on a young fella like myself.
“Then you hear the stories that he was the reason that a lot of the big money came into the game, to get hold of him.”
McCaw has been hailed as the greatest rugby player of all time after a 15-year career that included a record 148 Test caps, two World Cup wins and three World Rugby player of the year awards.
But Lomu is remembered as perhaps the most exciting, sending a jolt through crowds when he took the ball as fans wondered whether he would speed away from opponents or simply trample over them.
– ‘Phenomenal athlete’ -All Black coach Steve Hansen said if it was not for the kidney disease that eventually claimed his life, Lomu might be the player being talked about as the best ever, rather than McCaw.
“He was a phenomenal athlete and could do things that other people couldn’t do that’s recognised by the whole world,” he said.
Tew said Lomu was at this thrilling best in 1995, when the game was struggling with the transition to professionalism and its very existence was threatened.
“The things that Jonah achieved, particularly in a couple of games, raised the eyebrows of some people who had a significant amount of money,” he said.
“That was at the point where the game was about to be lost. If the potential for the game hadn’t have been demonstrated by Jonah, we might well not be sitting here.”
Rugby legend, never confirmed, is that seeing Lomu in 1995 convinced media magnate Rupert Murdoch about rugby’s potential and he subsequently signed a major deal for southern hemisphere television rights.
McCaw admitted he agonised over the timing of his retirement announcement, less than 24 hours after Lomu’s death, but decided to proceed and pay his respects.
He said Lomu may have paved the way for rugby’s commercialisation but he never let fame go to his head, a trait current players tried to emulate.
“He was the superstar and I think the way he held himself paved the way for what’s expected for the rest of the New Zealand rugby players and All Blacks who have gone since,” he said.