Ode to Jonah Lomu from a Humble Sport Scientist

Like so many across the world I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Jonah Lomu this week. It seems that anyone who was fortunate enough to meet Jonah in person was left with a lasting impression of a very special individual. I was one of those lucky people, and I want to tell a story about my special Jonah experience. This story also should also serve as a reminder for what I believe to still be the fundamental principle of athlete preparation: specificity.

During my PhD I developed a Rugby Specific Fitness Test (RSFT) which myself a group of colleagues was then contracted to run an all New Zealand Super 15 and National players in 1988 and 1999. The test involved a 12 minute “simulation” of high intensity rugby, complete with sprinting, changing direction, rest periods and horizontal force and power measurements using a specifically design machine affectionately known as the “GRUNT 3000”.

I met Jonah a few times in this realm, but the one that will stand in my memory for ever is when we were asked to come in and run the RSFT at All Black camp in 1999.
Sometime before the camp, the media had turned up at another fitness testing day where Jonah had performed not-so-well on a 3km time trial test. In fact it was a test that he genuinely found very hard to complete. Needless to say the media saw this as an opportunity to do their thing, and were mercilessly cruel in their commentary of Jonah’s 3km run abilities. I read the article whilst grinding my teeth with frustration.

SO when we turned up to All Black camp and explained to the players that we were going to put them through a 12-minute exercise test, Jonah was not impressed. I don’t think he was scared of many things, but I think perhaps he was of this. It looked as if Jonah was going to “give it a miss” and for me this was a crying shame – of course I wanted the most famous and revered player on the planet to do the test which I and my colleagues had worked so hard to develop.

I approached Jonah and explained to him that this would be very different from a 3km run – this test was designed to test rugby fitness and ability, it was designed to test what he was seemingly born to do (in sport anyways) – sprint fast and hit things very hard! Thankfully the coaches at the time, Tony Gilbert and Wayne Smith were also very supportive of the test, and were greatly respected by Jonah as mentors. So with some reluctance, Jonah stepped up to the start line.

It was simply beautiful. Seeing Jonah do his thing close up was awe inspiring. The acceleration, fluidity of movement and sheer power was just awesome to watch. When he hit the tackle bag I wondered how people could survive such an impact, and when he hit the GRUNT 3000 and drove it back, it was like it was made of paper (it weighed 200kg).

Pure Power: Jonah smashes the GRUNT 3000 at the 1999 All Black camp.

The results? Jonah topped the whole team – neck and neck with perhaps the fittest man in rugby at the time, Anton Oliver. His results in all aspects of the test were top of the class. And the class was the All Blacks.

As a scientist who was passionate about the concept of specificity, it was validation for all the work my colleagues and I had done. Specificity is so important, and yet still something which so many people still forget to this day. Was Jonah Lomu put on this earth to be a 3km runner? I seriously doubt it! One of my mentors summed it up nicely – “be careful what you measure, because that’s what you’ll get.” Test and train to play.

But what stuck in my mind most about that day was the man. For anyone who followed rugby, he was the most famous man on the planet. I was shaking when I met him. What was he like? A pure gentlemen – humble, shy and grateful for everything the people around him did.
Rest in Peace Jonah.

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