By Andrew Mehrtens for the UK Times
It was the greatest of all Jonah days – and the fact that England are playing New Zealand in a World Cup semi-final today has allowed all those memories to surface. They are 24 years old now, but I still feel I was privileged to have been there. Whatever happens in Yokohama today, nothing can ever match Jonah Lomu that afternoon in Cape Town in June 1995.
People forget now that leading into the game the All Blacks were hardly favourites. I certainly didn’t feel we were. We knew we were going well but England had these really big boys. I was naturally nervous and apprehensive that we were up against this behemoth team. Ben Clarke, the No 7, was the one I was most conscious of. I remember thinking: I don’t want to be running anywhere near him and I don’t want him running anywhere near me.
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Of course we thought we knew Jonah’s potential. We knew how quick he was on the wing. I’d seen him at training, coming off one and a half steps into Richard Loe and Sean Fitzpatrick, who were holding tackle bags, and knocking them five metres backwards. He had phenomenal strength.
I’d also trained against him and played against him. I remember a game against him for Canterbury at the end of 1994; when it turned out that Jonah wasn’t available – the sighs of relief!
So, yes, we thought we knew. But we still had no concept of what he could really do.
My memory of the build-up was actually being late for our captain’s team meeting the night before. There is no worse feeling in the world. I was in my first season of All Black rugby. I was just sitting in my room watching TV, had totally lost track of the time and I got a knock on the door and it was Mike Brewer, one of the senior players: “What the f*** are you doing?”
So I felt sick the whole of that night, and nervous because I felt I had to go out the next day and prove that my head was in the right place.
As we know, I needn’t have worried. We had a blistering start. We had hardly got going when Jonah just galumphed off, left us all in the dust and ploughed through Mike Catt, the full back.
Three things about that try, which was the most iconic he scored. First, Will Carling had ankle-tapped him, which meant he barrelled into Catty, angling forward, making him even harder to stop. I have thought about that tackle and I am not sure anyone could have stopped Jonah at that point.
Second, as he stumbled into Catty, Glen Osborne, our full back, was on his inside calling for the ball. Glen never let Jonah forget about the fact that he didn’t give the pass. Third, at the time, I didn’t really appreciate the try because, as the goalkicker, I was immediately thinking two things: this is a tough first-up kick; and thank God I am not Mike Catt.
The rest of the first half is a blur apart from Jonah sailing round Rob Andrew for his second and then that Zinzan Brooke moment, when our No 8 took a clearance kick 40 metres out and started to slow down. It was obvious then what he had in mind. He was a skilful bloke, he was always doing stuff like that in training, whether it was place-kicking, drop-kicking or throwing NFL-style spirals to hit the crossbar of the posts.
As soon as he started slowing down for the kick, we started calling: “No, no, no,” and then, “Oh, oh, OK. Good kick,” as his drop-goal sailed through the posts. I remember standing almost rooted to the spot, pinching myself, thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’ We already had a huge lead, everything was going right. This is ridiculous.
In the second half, at one point, I was scampering round the outside of Jonah but as soon as he got the ball I thought: there’s no point in me being here because if he can’t score from here, then I certainly can’t. That was his third. And he finished with a fourth, from 50 metres out.
England were shellshocked afterwards having lost 45-29. We were a bit too. We knew Jonah was capable of that sort of thing, but putting it together for that long and so devastatingly and against a good team? It was just extraordinary; as I say, the greatest of all Jonah days.
Bizarrely, I remember being a bit disappointed that our performance was sort of sullied a bit by conceding too many points. I’d have liked to have kept England down to fewer than 29.
And what essentially came out of that game was great: Jonah Lomu Rugby, the Playstation game. I’ve loved it for years because I’m on it, one of the No 10s, and I am fast, don’t miss kicks and even make tackles.
It made me more talented and more famous than I ever would have been.