Monday 23 September 2019

Neil Francis on Jonah Lomu: 'He caused carnage around the park that night. He was awesome'

Jonah Lomu charges through the Irish defence during the 2001 Test match at Lansdowne Road
Jonah Lomu charges through the Irish defence during the 2001 Test match at Lansdowne Road
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is what separates us from the All Blacks. Recognition of talent and their ability to bring it right up to its fullest potential.

It is what separates us from the All Blacks. Recognition of talent and their ability to bring it right up to its fullest potential.

In the lead-up to our first pool game in the 1995 World Cup we were grasping at any perceived weakness within the ranks of our New Zealand opponents. France had played them in a two-match series and had beaten them convincingly with an 8-22 and 20-23 scoreline which included Jean Luc Sadourny's try from the other side of the world.

A young All Black of Tongan extraction got his first couple of caps during that series. Jonah Lomu was 19 years of age and in that series was ruthlessly exploited - almost humiliated - by Emile N'tamack. Lomu was defensively clueless, not knowing whether to stay in or stay out and got caught in no man's land for most of those games. France made hay on his wing and a slightly confused and embarrassed Lomu got dropped for the three-match South African series and subsequent Bledisloe series against Australia, John Timu getting in on the left wing and playing well.

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The experiment of playing a No 8 out of position on the left wing in a full Test match would be exposed to be the folly that it was and Lomu would be cast on to the scrap heap at a tender age. The big man had been impressive as a New Zealand schools No 8 but was at sea on the wing.

The thing is that when New Zealanders see something in someone they have this capacity to nurture and develop them. Here in Ireland if we have a square peg that doesn't fit in to a round hole well then that's that. We don't have either the time or inclination to point them in the right direction.

Lomu's starting point was a 10.75 100metre sprint time, freakish natural ability and superior hands. In New Zealand, the over-riding principle and thinking is, 'let's turn him into something useful'.

Jonah Lomu runs behind the posts to score a try during the All Black v Ireland rugby test at Lansdowne Road in November 2001
Jonah Lomu runs behind the posts to score a try during the All Black v Ireland rugby test at Lansdowne Road in November 2001

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Lomu was put to work in the ITM Cup and was pointed in the right direction. When he turned up for the All Black trial in 1995, he was a serious proposition and, more importantly, he knew what he was doing.

We watched the 1994 series against France in the Irish team room first and we were encouraged that we could make some capital on the left wing. This guy couldn't do anything right defensively. Then we watched the All Black trial match and our mood changed completely.

How the hell were we going to deal with this guy? We would need Checkpoint Charlie and a military strength supply of tasers to stop him.

Given the times that were in it, it is with no sense of embarrassment that I can reveal that one of the "tactics" we had was for the whole Irish team to look at Jonah when the All Blacks were doing the Haka. Someone had observed that he was awkward and uncoordinated doing the Maori war dance and we might make him feel a little self-conscious and uncomfortable if we stared at him. A genius scheme!

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

A few minutes into the game Jonah had barrelled five Irish players out of the road on the way to offloading to a supporting Josh Kronfeld on the line for an outstanding try.

It is rare that players look up on the big screen for the replay. There were so many Irish players who were down injured that the crowd started counting the missed tackles that Jonah had burst through bouncing us like skittles. Self-conscious? Sheepish? Great plan lads!

Gary Halpin scored a famous try that night and gave the All Blacks 'the finger' on his way back to the halfway line. I ran back with Gary and South African TV proclaimed I was congratulating him on his try.

What I in fact said was, "Flounder you f***ing clown, they're going to kill us for that" - which they duly did! Lomu was their instrument of pain. He scored two tries, made another two and caused carnage around the park. He was awesome. We got three tries that night and were competitive until the last 15 minutes when New Zealand just moved to another gear.

After the match some of the Kiwis came into our dressing room and some of us went into theirs. I swapped jerseys with Ian Jones but he had already swapped his knicks and socks so he suggested the only one big enough was number 11. I chatted with Jonah for a few minutes and all the time through our conversation my over-riding impression was what a phenomenal physical specimen he was. Tree-trunk thighs. His knicks were way too big - how do they grow men his size?

Despite his try-scoring exploits and his introduction to the world it has to be noted that New Zealand, who I thought were the best in that competition, came up short. The Boks did a number on Jonah, took him low and crowded him out. James Small has a World Cup winner's medal on the back of some uncompromising bravery and a tackling display where self-preservation was the last thought in his head.

Nobody now can recall James Small's name but everyone knew who Jonah Lomu was.

The world would get a brief glimpse of some of the emotional turmoil and psychological imbalances that afflicted the big man. He married Tanya Rutter in March of 1996, he was 20, she was 19 - children effectively. Lomu's life was a contradiction of rugby superstardom and paralysing insecurity. I got a close-up just four months after the World Cup.

I played in a Barbarians XV against Australia in Melbourne and a David Campese World XV against Australia in Sydney a week later. Two things would demonstrate Lomu's amazing commercial and playing appeal and his star attraction.

On the Monday after the Barbarians game, Campo was fretting - ticket sales were only at 28,000 for the Sydney football stadium - 30,000 was break-even but the star player had not yet committed. On Wednesday morning all was well - the giant was going to play and the press and TV were all over it. Lomu's first appearance since the World Cup final. Well before Saturday the game had sold out and all was well with Campo.

On Thursday before the game, I sat outside our hotel in Coogee (near Randwick) for lunch with Campo, Philippe Sella, Sean Fitzpatrick and Damian Cronin. The wine was flowing and a cacophony of constant laughter bound around the swimming pool. Suddenly there was a solar eclipse as Jonah arrived beside our table and joined us for lunch.

For the few hours he was with us there was a constant stream of people who came to the table and asked for his autograph. No selfies back then! Nobody else was asked. Eventually hotel staff stopped them coming. The conversation and the stories were priceless and as we tried to bring him in to the chat one thing became immediately apparent he was painfully shy and his inability to interact was obvious. Yes, he was 20 and we were all a good bit older and he didn't drink but a few things began to manifest. Lomu laughed at all the jokes (even mine) but he didn't get them and was being polite. I thought there was a barrier of some kind there and as soon as he had finished his lunch he made his excuses.

I met him again on Friday at breakfast, Abdel Benazzi was with me, and it was a fairly stilted conversation. It was obvious that he was a very humble guy and had trouble dealing with the attention heaped upon him. We got a brief history of where he had come from but it was his cousin/minder who told us about the gangs, the drugs and the murderous ghetto warfare that had been a staple of his troubled adolescence. He was estranged from his parents and had a trying and violent relationship with his alcoholic father.

As a group on this tour every player was at ease with themselves. When the kid kept saying "rugby rescued me" everyone eventually knew what he was saying - redemption and a near normal life would come on the pitch. The All Black management would endeavour to keep the freight train on the rails.

In terms of what he could do, I don't think I played with or against someone of his size - 6 foot 5 and 19 stone - with such incredible pick-up. Big men get going after 10 metres or so but he could gather speed almost from the first step.

What was equally impressive was that for such a huge man he could step effortlessly off both feet and had a natural cadence to his running - a kind of systemic balance. He was also wilfully aggressive and frankly nobody in their right mind with the possible exception of James Small would relish trying to tackle him.

He had football too and the All Blacks invited him to come in off his wing through midfield or off the side of a ruck. Get the ball into his hands as many times in a match as you can and you would make profit.

Would he be as effective now as he was in his heyday? Certainly the role of a winger has changed and defensive systems have become more sophisticated. He would have had more than enough natural ability to adapt to the game as it is played now.

His inability to articulate and his discomfort in front of a microphone or camera was evident. This was counterbalanced by his good nature and humility. He was a gentleman and a gentle man.

Three wives testify that he was in all probability emotionally immature but anyone who has met him will only have good things to say about him and as for his inability to articulate - well he did his talking on the field.

A great loss to the rugby community. His good deeds and strong faith far outweigh his sins but if the committee in heaven have reservations about letting him in then I would triple the guards and strongly reinforce the pearly gates over the coming days.

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