Saturday 21 September 2019

'Lomu did for rugby what Elvis did for rock and roll'

Jonah Lomu is tackled by Eric Elwood of Ireland during a 1995 Rugby World Cup match
Jonah Lomu is tackled by Eric Elwood of Ireland during a 1995 Rugby World Cup match
Jonah Lomu pictured in August 2015 in London with the Rugby World Cup trophy

John Brennan

Jonah Lomu exploded onto the world stage at a 1995 Rugby World Cup pool match against Ireland.

Until then wingers had been quick and nimble. Now they were big and brutal, but nonetheless fast.

Players who wore the green jersey that day paid tribute to the late New Zealand rugby star who managed to change the face of an entire sport.

The winger passed away suddenly on Tuesday night, having returned from a trip abroad. He was just 40 years of age.

Tributes have poured in for the late "undisputed icon" of world rugby after his sudden death in Auckland.

And they include Garrett Halpin, who famously gesticulated at New Zealand having scored the opening try for Ireland in that 1995 clash. The Irish celebrations were short-lived, however, as New Zealand - and a young Lomu - struck back.

The final score was 43-19 with two tries to Lomu's name, and the world was alerted to a new rugby threat.

"He did for rugby what Jerry Lewis or Elvis did for rock and roll ... Rugby had never seen anybody that big, or that quick," said Halpin.

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Lomu's seven tries in the tournament brought the All Blacks to a final showdown with South Africa, where they narrowly lost.

Halpin went on to say that Lomu was a man of "amazing humility".

"Our first impressions of him were his size and physique - I suppose our lasting impression was that we very quickly realised that something had arrived on the world stage - that he was going to change world rugby, that rugby would never be the same again. Rugby had never seen anything like him unleashed," added Halpin.

Nick Popplewell, who also played against Lomu in that game, added: "I think the nearest I got to him in that World Cup was in a lift after the match."

He called Lomu the first ever "super duper back" in world rugby, adding that "he certainly stamped his mark on the game".

Popplewell said that anywhere else in the world Lomu "would have been a second row" and not a winger.

Richard Wallace, who faced Lomu on the wing, said the former All Black "surpassed greatness" and said he made "great defenders look poor".

"He was just so phenomenally quick, it was a no-brainer to put him out wide."

Former Irish captain Keith Wood said: "I knew Jonah pretty well. I played against him a couple of times, got to meet him a lot over the years.

"I sat on the bench in that 1995 [World Cup] game when he steamrolled Ireland long before he streamrolled England [in the semi-finals]."

Lomu famously scored four tries against England in the semi-final in what is regarded as the best ever individual performance at a World Cup.

Four years later he would return to the Rugby World Cup where he would better this tally, scoring eight tries along the way to the All Blacks exit to France at the semi-final stage.

Among the other stars paying tribute was Shane Horgan, the former Ireland and Leinster winger, who described Lomu as "a one-off" and "a monster of a man".

He said Lomu was "about 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in with this electrifying pace, a brilliant step and able to do just about every skill needed to be a great rugby player".

Horgan played against Lomu later in the Kiwi's career, and described the problems the legendary winger caused him.

"You wanted to get to Jonah Lomu before the ball got to him and you'd try to act as a speed bump and wait for another couple of players to come and drag him down.

"I remember being properly worried before playing [New Zealand], that this was a guy who could really, really embarrass you and he did it to many players."

Brian O'Driscoll played against Lomu early in his own career and said: "I remember in that game [against New Zealand in 2001] being left one-on-one with him. There was inevitability about what was going to happen.

"Once they got the ball into Jonah's hands, against someone that was 5ft 10in, simple physics would tell you there is only going to be one winner. He ran over the top of me and scored a try and that was part of their comeback."

Dave Wallace who played against the New Zealand winger in the same game as O'Driscoll, called him a "superstar".

"What an athlete, what a superstar he was; when he came into the game, he gave rugby a huge shot in the arm - he was just an amazing player," said Wallace.


"I was lucky enough to play against him in 2001; he was one of the main reasons why they won that game. He scored a great try under the posts."

Wallace summed up Lomu by saying: "He was a massive ambassador for the game and a gentlemen too."

Lomu suffered from nephrotic syndrome, a degenerative kidney illness which effectively curtailed his career at his peak.

He tried making a comeback after receiving a transplant in 2004, but he was forced to abandon hopes of playing in the 2007 World Cup.

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