Any of the players set to go to battle in Ireland’s second ever World Cup match against New Zealand in the quarterfinals on Saturday will do well to top the remarkable tournament debut of Jonah Lomu, the last time the pair met in this competition in 1995.
The world of rugby was very different back then — when Lomu and the All Blacks faced Ireland at Nelson Mandela’s World Cup in Johannesburg. The sport was still officially amateur, although that ideology was on its last legs, but New Zealand no longer arrived once a decade as complete unknowns.
The All Blacks were overwhelming favourites for the tournament, just as they are in Japan. But they had only played one match in the previous nine months in the traditional format of the game — a 73-7 demolition of Canada.
Lomu, a large chap playing as a scarcely credible 250lb, 6-foot-6 winger, had run amok at the Hong Kong Sevens earlier that year and was already in the record books as the youngest All Black at little over 19-years-old. But his first two caps, at home to France in 1994, had seen defensive limitations exposed by Emile N’Tamack.
The French won both Tests and Lomu, omitted from the subsequent three-match series with South Africa, the Bledisloe Cup against Australia and that single warm-up against the Canadians, was little known abroad except to sevens aficionados. He was still held a job at an Auckland bank.
The match against Ireland was one they looked to dominate, despite the fact that hooker Norm Hewitt was making his debut, while outside-half Andrew Mehrtens, full-back Glen Osborne and open side Josh Kronfeld had won their first caps in the romp against Canada.
The early indications were that if anything unlikely might happen, it was an Irish win. Prop Gary Halpin crossed for a try. But Mehrtens landed two penalties before Lomu launched into action.
First he burst through three Irish tackles – open side Dennis McBride, first up, bouncing off like a rubber ball from a wall — to send Walter Little over. It was ruled out for Little’s foot in touch, but shortly afterwards Lomu took a fly-hack from Irish scrum-half Michael Bradley to surge down the left to score, leaving wing Richard Wallace in his wake.
Two second-half incursions pretty much decided the match. Lomu was the recipient for the first, taking a pass to charge over untouched in the corner after Kronfeld had burst through at an angle, then returned the compliment for the omnipresent open side after a thunderous 60 metre dash. It ended a few feet short when Ireland wing Simon Geoghegan found a means of stopping him — low and from behind — only open to the tiny minority fast enough to catch him, but Kronfeld was there to take the pass and cross.
It ended 43-19. Lomu may have been mild mannered — ITV commentator Chris Rea said “he looked almost surprised every time he got the ball” — and quietly-spoken to the point of near-inaudibility, but amid the glare of a World Cup, he had in 80 minutes become the biggest thing in rugby.
Few players have had such a transformative effect. There were big, powerful wings before, and athletic giants, but none who so completely subverted the previous assumption of rugby physics that there is a broad trade-off between size and speed. Beating the Irish started a sort-of Grand Slam for the All Blacks, beating all four home nations at the tournament, Lomu scoring seven tries in all, denied only by Wales, perhaps the sole distinction of arguably their unhappiest World Cup campaign.
Some joked that, Tongan-born, he might be the genetic outcome of French nuclear tests in the Pacific. One paper called him “the sort of weapon that inspires proliferation treaties”. Welsh wing Wayne Proctor held him scoreless in spite of being outweighed by 90 pounds but still caught the sense of hopelessness felt by markers: “I got close to try and tackle him before he got going — and then I found that he could side-step as well. He’s not exactly your conventional winger, is he?”
England captain Will Carling, a renowned defender, was a little ungracious after being humiliated in the semifinal: “He’s amazing, a freak. The sooner he goes away the better.”
Lomu loomed over the most memorable of World Cups. Springbok skipper Francois Pienaar has recalled little mention of him in team talks once the tactic of forcing him infield was agreed, but whether he could be stopped seemed almost the only topic for discussion on South African radio in the week before the final.
Lomu arrived with perfect timing as the 1995 tournament became the first World Cup to command global attention, his status as the first player whose own fame transcended the game sealed when he went through the oldest of rugby rituals: meeting a girl on tour. What would once not have been news at all made gossip columns and front pages around the world.
He enabled another tipping point. The All Blacks had long been the most famous team in the game and, often as not, the best. But 1967 apart, they had rarely been the most exciting — a title they have been able to claim for most of the past quarter-century.
Both Ireland and New Zealand will hope to have something to take their opponents by surprise on Saturday. But however successful that is, they are unlikely to be able to look back in years to come and say ‘nothing was ever the same after that game’ as their counterparts of 1995 can.