Lomu the human wrecking ball

The rugby world gasped in awe as Jonah Lomu was unleashed on the global stage in 1995, writes MARC HINTON.

Rugby has its share of signature moments, but few shine with the neon glow of the special score served up by Jonah Lomu in the opening minutes of the All Blacks’ semi-final against England at the 1995 World Cup. It is one of the sport’s most defining tries – so awe-inspiring it reduced New Zealand’s foremost commentator of the time to a series of gasps. He simply could not find the words to describe the beautiful fusion of power, force and unstoppable momentum.

Watch it again, and appreciate the incongruous mix of brutal strength and balletic poise. Lomu receives the ball, from a switch in play, outside the 22 off a pass thrown, unpromisingly, along the ground and behind him. He has to turn round to fetch it, but then unleashes. First he swats wing Tony Underwood aside with a withering fend, then slips past Will Carling’s despairing dive with apparent ease. But somehow the freight train is tipped off its axis, forcing Lomu into a lunging stumble. No problem: the 120kg wing simply barrels through fullback Mike Catt, as though he is little more than a speed bump, to complete a try that sets the tone for a glorious 45-29 victory.

Lomu scored seven tries, all told, during the third edition of the global tournament, and set up numerous others as the All Blacks rampaged to the final with a series of glorious victories. The rugby was sublime, until it wasn’t, as a mystery illness took the edge off the New Zealanders and an inspired Springbok side did the rest in the showcase game to prevail in a tryless extra-time classic.

Yes, the Rainbow Nation had its defining victory, but Lomu was the rock star of the tournament, dominating media coverage and fan interest to an unprecedented level. Not only did the 20-year-old behemoth announce himself on the global stage, he redefined our thinking of the modern wing. Suddenly size mattered, and the game would never be the same thereafter.

If Lomu’s fabulous tournament thrilled the watching world, it captivated his nation. New Zealand, after all, had been waiting for this for over a year and we were enthralled as he and his team came of age.

This was what had been predicted pretty much since he’d been an oversized teenage prodigy at Wesley College, south of Auckland, creating mayhem, as a loose forward, in the schoolboy and age-grade ranks. He had also exploded on to the sevens scene as a near unstoppable force of nature, and it was considered only a matter of time before he delivered in the Test arena.

That time took a little longer than some anticipated. All Blacks coach Laurie Mains had gone against his conservative nature to plunge Lomu into Test rugby at the age of 19 years and 45 days – still the youngest New Zealand international – in a home series against the French in 1994.

It was not the start everyone anticipated. The teen was nervous and tentative, and a smart French team exposed him defensively as they swept the All Blacks with victories in Christchurch and Auckland. A frustrated Mains dropped Lomu for the rest of the ’94 programme – a home series win over the Boks, and defeat to the Wallabies in Sydney.

But, via a series of gruelling training camps, Lomu eventually won back the faith of his coach and made the trip to the Republic, where he would finally deliver on the promise his nation had been anticipating for so long.

Andrew Mehrtens, the other young star of the ’95 All Blacks, vividly recalls flanker Josh Kronfeld feasting off Lomu’s steamrolling runs.

‘Jonah would gallop away, swatting defenders here and there, finally lose pace from all the mosquitoes attacking him, get dragged down 5m out then pop the ball up to the greedy flanker who would score the try – and rarely think to get round under the posts.’

But Lomu’s impact had not surprised his teammates.

‘A lot has been made of his size and power but he was bloody quick too,’ adds Mehrtens. ‘We’d seen him knock guys like Fitzy [Sean Fitzpatrick] and Richard Loe metres backwards in training drills with only a couple of steps off the mark. The big surprise was how much he’d grown in confidence and assertiveness since ’94. And the attention he got off the field was amazing.’

When Mehrtens ponders Lomu’s game-changing influence in South Africa, he thinks of it in terms of sheer impact.

‘[Va’aiga] Tuigamala had been similar in his play but I had never seen – and probably won’t – the effect of one player on another team like that. Just his presence in a backline took all the focus. You’d see guys bunch together in a group of four or five defenders just to stop him. You might assume what he was going to do but stopping it was another matter.

‘While it didn’t change the structure of wing play, it was unprecedented individual devastation and made teams focus tactics around individual players’ strengths. Christian Cullen was similar in that sense too.’

Lomu would go on to play 63 Tests in all in a career ultimately undone by a crippling kidney condition. But nowhere did his star shine brighter than South Africa in ’95.

– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt