25 years on: Celebrating the anomaly that was Lomu

Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

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.

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