By Greg Stutchbury
TOKYO (Reuters) – All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick claims to have never seen it, Sam Cane says he’s only seen highlights, but it is highly unlikely they would be the highly paid sportsmen they are had Jonah Lomu not set alight the 1995 World Cup semi-finals.
In the only previous knockout stage match between New Zealand and England before Saturday’s Yokohama clash, Lomu rampaged his way to four tries in the All Blacks 45-29 victory in the semi-final in Cape Town.
The 80 minutes of carnage at Newlands was not only monumental in terms of Lomu’s performance as he electrified the rugby world but it ultimately shaped the future direction of the sport.
The performance of the 1.96m-tall, 119kg Lomu, who could run the 100m in under 11 seconds, attracted the interest of media companies who were engaged in a pitched battle for the broadcast rights for sports events to drive pay television subscriptions.
Popular legend has it that media mogul Rupert Murdoch, watching Lomu run over the top of England fullback Mike Catt, turned to one of his lieutenants and proclaimed “get me that man”, knowing that if they signed the giant winger, they had the marketable athlete they needed to sell the game.
The “Rugby War”, as former Wallabies lock and journalist Peter FitzSimons described it, forced rugby’s administrators to recognise the ethos of amateurism they had adhered to since the split with rugby league in 1893 was no longer relevant.
Rugby was declared open and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand created Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations, the precursor to the Rugby Championship, on the back of Murdoch’s News Corp playing $555 million for the rights for 10 years to matches between the southern hemisphere’s three major rugby powers.
Lomu became rugby’s first truly global personality and he garnered endorsement deals with numerous international brands, ranging from sportswear to fast food restaurants.
It was a far cry from just eight years earlier when World Cup winning winger Craig Green walked away from the All Blacks straight after they won the 1987 tournament because he could not afford to take more time off work as a building contractor.
“If you weren’t there (at work), you didn’t get paid,” Green told New Zealand’s Stuff Media earlier this year.
“You couldn’t pay the rent to stay in the flat, yet you were running around representing your country. It sort of got to the stage where I thought, ‘Oh well, I might be better moving on’.”
Most top-tier rugby players now earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, while some of the leading teams in Japan are in line for hefty performance bonuses.
The rematch of the 1995 semi-final, however, will be missing one key observer — Lomu.
He died from complications of kidney disease in late 2015 aged 40, the day after he had returned from promotional work at the last World Cup in England.
Sadly, Lomu, who was reported in his playing prime as being a multi-millionaire, faced limited earning potential afterwards because of the disease and was unable to fully capitalise on the seeds he helped sow for the next generation of players.
He died effectively broke.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; editing by Richard Pullin)