Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
It was with much sadness that the untimely and early death of Jonah Lomu was reported this week.
Jonah was only 40 years of age but had fought a well-publicised battle against kidney disease for many years.
Lomu was the sport’s first professional superstar, a player who changed the face of the game from bursting onto the scene during the 1995 World Cup.
He made his international debut for the All Blacks in the humbling home series’ defeat to France in 1994 when Lomu’s inexperience was exposed by a brilliant French backline that included greats such as Sella, Ntamack and Saint-Andre.
That difficult introduction to Test rugby gave little warning of what was to come just 12 months later when Lomu dominated the World Cup in South Africa.
His pace and power made the entire sporting world sit up and notice.
There are times in sport when your team is on the receiving end of sporting greatness and supporters almost have to put their allegiances to one side and just say “wow”.
I think it is fair to say the England fans watching the 1995 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand had that type of moment. Lomu scored four tries of almost staggering pace and power to blow England away.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and since Lomu’s exploits in 1995, nearly all teams have tried to find their own ‘Lomu’.
Big powerful wingers have become almost the norm but none have got close to the original. Whilst his power was clear, Lomu was also incredibly quick with evasive skills to match. He was the full package.
Away from the field he was a gentle giant, regarded as very humble and almost shy. He used rugby to find a brotherhood and discipline that gave him purpose and direction. Rugby fans across the world should be extremely grateful that he did.
In last week’s column I stated that Preston Grasshoppers’ home defeat to Otley needed to serve as a wake-up call if they were to get their season back on track.
Well Saturday’s victory at Luctonians - which represents the side’s longest away journey of the season - was certainly a step in the right direction.
During my time as director of rugby at the club, Luctonians proved to be an unhappy hunting ground for Hoppers.
A single win and a draw were the only positive results from our five trips to deepest Herefordshire.
Some of those defeats were conclusive and particularly disappointing as they were games we were expected to win – and win well.
And with all due respect, it was not as if the Herefordshire side was an unbeatable proposition. They are generally a solid outfit who use their remote location – and hence the travel difficulties visiting teams encounter – to their benefit.
To put that in perspective, from Preston the four-hour coach journey is a nightmare with the last hour taking in winding country roads that would test the constitution of the most ardent traveller.
On our first ever journey to play them I was tasked with getting the team bus to the village of Lucton.
Let’s just say the directions I had and the path we took did not win me many friends that day.
In fact at one point I almost got the team bus stuck on a dirt track that was only millimetres wide enough to get the team coach through. Fortunately since then a more accessible route has been found but it is still a horrible journey.
On Saturday, the Hoppers team met at Lightfoot Green before 8am for a pre-journey breakfast, travelled in wet and windy conditions and arrived at a ground on top of a Herefordshire hill which was heavy underfoot and quickly turned into a mud bath.
Getting a journey like that out of your system is tough and a couple of our previous defeats down there were due to us being “stuck on the bus” for the opening quarter.
Effectively we lost those games in the opening 20 minutes as the fired-up hosts were quickly out of the traps, determined to make sure they took full advantage of our travel lethargy.
But last Saturday it was Hoppers who made the fast start.
Two early tries and a domination of territory and possession turned the tables on those previous issues.
To do that showed a mental strength that has been missing previously and has had many suggesting that the team has a soft underbelly.
So the gutsiness of the win, the character shown to get a result under pressure after the previous week’s poor performance and the need to get a win over a team below them in the table should not be understated.
And nor should the involvement of head coach Garth Dew.
In my previous columns I have touched on some of the issues that have troubled the Hoppers side for the last season-and-a-half.
Too many close defeats and poor game management have seen far too many points thrown away.
Knowing Garth and his approach, this persistent issue of the team shooting itself in the foot would have been driving him mad.
So how do you start to rectify that? How do you ensure that the messages delivered in training and the ability to TCUP – Think Clearly Under Pressure – are transferred to match situations when the pressure comes on?
Well, if you are Garth you bring yourself out of retirement and do your talking from the field!
Out of the game for three years after being told that his injured knee would not stand up to the rigours of the match play, Garth never gave up hope that he would fight his way back onto the field.
When he originally came back to his home-town club we signed him with a view to him being a player who would add a hard edge to our forward pack. It was shortly after his return that he was told to stop playing, something which I know he found hard.
But he continued to work hard at his rehab and after seeking second opinions from the medical world he has returned to the fray and his timing could not be better.
He will still bring that hard edge but perhaps more importantly also his understanding of the game onto the pitch at crucial times.
This will add to the on field decision making which has been a weakness.
And if his team can back up last week’s victory with a resurrection of their home form against this weeks visitors Sandal, then a new journey for this team might just be starting.