39 Eric Rush [1995-1997]
Eric Rush’s biggest influence as a player was in sevens. No one did more to put sevens on the world map than Rush, who became renowned as one of the greatest exponents of the abbreviated sport in history.
It may well be sevens that he’s best known for, but Rush, who won nine test caps, had a significant influence on All Blacks rugby that went beyond his statistics.
He was the mentor and main support network for Jonah Lomu. It was Rush who first introduced Lomu to sevens and put him on the big stage.
Rush could see the freakish talent in Lomu and he also connected with him on a deeply human level. Rush knew about hardship, about having to fight for everything and he and Lomu connected. They were mates. There was trust and it was no surprise that it was Rush who helped the big man transition to XVs and stay on track when he was in serious danger of falling o it in 1994 and early 1995.
When Lomu turned up to an All Blacks training camp in February 1995 horribly out of condition, it was Rush who persuaded coach Laurie Mains that he could retrieve the situation.
It was Rush who did the hard yards on the training field with the giant wing. It was Rush who advised, encouraged and guided Lomu to a better place and it is doubtful whether the latter would have had the impact he did in 1995 if it hadn’t been for the influence of the former.
Former New Zealand sevens player Karl Te Nana recently told an anecdote that illustrated how close Rush and Lomu were.
Lomu was playing in the 2001 World Cup Sevens in Argentina when Rush su ered a double leg fracture and was forced home. Lomu, by all accounts, led an unforgettable, farewell haka for Rush, before delivering an equally unforgettable performance in the final that saw New Zealand crowned champions.
Te Nana believes it was the disappearance of Lomu’s jersey which inspired that matchwinning performance against Australia. The New Zealand team shared a changing room with Russia. “Jonah liked to put his jersey on a hanger and see it there before we went out to warm up,” said Te Nana.
“But when we came back in, the jersey had gone. One of Russian fellas must have seen Jonah’s jersey, pinched it and done a runner. The big fella had a bit of a hissy fit and started punching the walls. I said, ‘Look, we’ve got another jersey, don’t worry,’ but it was the one he wanted to give to Rushie.”
The ultimate proof of their closeness, however, came in tragedy when Lomu died in late 2015. The family turned to Rush to lead the eulogies at the funeral and his old friend spoke with a compelling mix of humour, compassion and respect.
It was a speech that touched hearts and provided a fitting send-o to one of rugby’s greatest players. But for Rush, the relationship wasn’t about rugby or stardom, it was about friendship, fun and mutual respect.
“The way we talked was like little kids,” Rush recalled recently. “I remember him as my big cuddly mate. I don’t miss him as the rugby superstar. We haven’t been that for 20 years.
“We’d get together and have laughs about the old days. That’s the times I miss about him. Any conversation of great All Blacks he’ll be in there. He’ll never be forgotten, there’s no two ways about that.”