JONAH Lomu in 1994 played his first ever match on the left wing. He was just eighteen-years-old. Four first class matches later, as a left wing, and Lomu would become the youngest All Black to debut at 19 years and 45 days.
Lomu, in the early months of 1994, had made the New Zealand senior Sevens team and sizzled in Hong Kong. All Blacks coach Laurie Mains had requested the Counties senior coach Ross Cooper to play Lomu on the wing and the man-child Lomu made enough of an impression to be picked for the New Zealand Probables XV to play the Possibles in the 1994 final All Blacks trial in Gisborne.
Lomu, wearing No 11, lined up against the legendary veteran John Kirwan, who had been dropped for the All Blacks 1993 end of year tour. Kirwan, the superstar of the 1987 World Cup, wanted to make a statement that he was still good enough to play Test rugby. Ditto Lomu. The difference was Kirwan had played 58 Tests and Lomu had played just five first class matches.
I was working in New Zealand at the time and was in Gisborne to watch the day Jonah went up against JK. You’ll find the footage on YouTube. It makes for great viewing, but what made for even greater viewing was being in Gisborne and seeing first hand the size, power and speed of Lomu.
He was huge and he was fast. I had never seen a wing that quick, who could physically make such an impact.
Kirwan, to his credit, hung on in most of the tackles, missing just the first one early in the match. Lomu’s impact was immediate. There was no doubting his strength, on attack and in defence. Just ask the seasoned All Blacks hooker Norm Hewitt. Lomu picked ‘Nasty Norm’ up in the tackle and speared him into the ground. It was a tackle that would see him red-carded today. But in 1994, it was the stuff that got a player the red carpet.
Mains was not deterred by Lomu’s age and lack of experience and on the 26th June, 1994, Lomu would make his Test debut in Christchurch against France. Lomu produced moments of raw power and pace. He bounced the 100-Test veteran Phillipe Sella, crashed into and over several French forwards and comfortably toyed with French right wing Emile Ntamak, who weighed 98 kilograms and stood 1.91 metres.
Ntamak, in recalling marking Lomu, said that when he saw Lomu in the tunnel he thought he had one too many numerals on his jersey. Ntamak said that Lomu in person was very different to seeing Lomu on video. ‘He was just so much bigger,’ said Ntamak of the 115 kilogram, 1.96 metres giant.
Lomu’s Test debut ended in tears, with France winning 22-8. The French would repeat the victory in Auckland to claim a historic series win against the All Blacks. I was in the press box at Eden Park when the French scored the ‘try from the end of the world’ in the last play of the game and momentarily ended Lomu’s Test career.
Lomu had missed the initial tackle that led to the 90 metre counter attack try and the critics roasted his naivety on defence, his lack of work rate off the ball and his all-round pedigree as a Test winger. There was talk that he would never again play for the All Blacks and Lomu sought out a potential switch to rugby league.
Mains sent him back to Counties to do his senior rugby union apprenticeship, work on his conditioning and also his understanding of wing play.
New Zealand, with the Springboks touring for the first time since 1981, seemed to forget about Lomu. He was out of the sporting news and seemingly out of the All Blacks for good.
Mains hadn’t forgotten, even if the illusion was that Lomu wasn’t in the mix for the 1995 World Cup.
Mains didn’t pick Lomu for the first two training camps, but he did call-up Lomu for the third and final All Blacks camp at Lake Taupo, which would climax with a Probables v Possibles match. Lomu survived the torturous camp, scored two tries in the final match and was on a plane to South Africa. Mains, 11 months after teasing the rugby world with a brief introduction of Lomu, was now ready to unleash the beast. And on the 27th May this is exactly what happened at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
It was spectacular.
Again, I consider myself very blessed to have been in the press box as Lomu scored two tries, made two more and looked like scoring every time he touched the ball.
His first try was trademark brute force. He stream-rolled Ireland right wing Richard Wallace. He set up Frank Bunce’s try, in breaking through three tackles and he broke five tackles to create Walter Little’s try. Little stepped into touch and the try was erased from the record books. Lomu’s strength in running through hardened 100-plus kilograms rugby veterans was an image that would never be erased. His speed in the rarified air at Ellis Park was electric. The All Blacks worked Lomu into space early in the second half. He got the ball just outside his own 22metres, beat two defenders with acceleration, brushed off two more would be tacklers before Ireland winger Simon Geoghegan hung onto Lomu’s ankles and forced a pass to Josh Kronfeld a metre from the Irish tryline. Kronfeld caught the ball and fell over for a try.
Do yourself a favour. Visit YouTube and take a look at that Lomu run against Ireland at Ellis Park. It’s the stuff of sporting goosebumps. Now imagine being at the ground and watching it live.
I am privileged to say I was there when Jonah scored the first of his 15 World Cup tries and that I was there to see Jonah Lomu in his prime.
Lomu, when he destroyed Ireland on the 27th May, had turned 20 just two weeks earlier. He would never again be in such perfect physical condition. The month of the 1995 Rugby World Cup was also Lomu’s most spectacular month in his Test career.
I had seen Lomu a year earlier in Gisbone. He was a man-child. A year later and there was nothing boyish about his performance.
Just ask the Irish. He was Jonah the Giant.