I first played against Jonah in the quarter final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, South Africa when I was part of the Scotland team that took on New Zealand. By that time I knew plenty about him and whilst he had hit the sporting headlines with his devastating performances in the pool stages I will always remember a phone call from my brother Graeme the year before who had been watching him play in the Hong Kong Sevens.
“You should see this kid Lomu playing for New Zealand, he is unbelievable”, shouted Graeme down the phone. “Every time he touches the ball he scores a try. The crowd love him.” It was the excitement in Graeme’s voice that really struck a chord as he was calling me directly from the stadium! Over the next 12months and in the lead up to the ’95 World Cup, Graeme would continually remind me about the ‘brilliant kid, Jonah Lomu.’
He was rugby’s first global super star and since that debut in Hong Kong and in particular at the Rugby World Cup you sensed that you were playing against a very special player. In that quarter final we talked about getting up into his face. The tactic was to crowd him and to shut down his space. It wasn’t long before we realised we were up against a phenomenon. I used to pride myself on my tackling ability but Lomu was in a different league. He was skilful, extremely strong and he had pace. He only scored one try against Scotland but his strength created opportunities and space for others around him and we were beaten 48-30.
A week later his 4 tries against England in the semi-final catapulted him to superhero status and although his one regret was that he never won a World Cup, his name will always be synonymous as the player who changed the game forever. Size, bulk, speed and skill is what he brought to the rugby world and soon after that competition the game turned professional. Such was his commercial draw he would come to dominate the game for the next few years despite his ill health.
We played against each other a couple more times but one occasion that really springs to mind was Ieuan Evans testimonial game in November 1995. Lomu was the box office attraction and unfortunately I was playing against him. During the match my centre partner Vinnie Cunningham noticed that Lomu had ventured off his wing. We agreed on the defensive strategy that I would tackle low and Vinnie would go high. I do not think I have ever been catapulted backwards but Vinnie also manged to do a backward somersault at the same time. I can remember being totally disoriented and ran in the opposite direction such was the force that hit us!
Out with the playing field our paths would cross at various times over the years and I was in his company a few weeks ago. We shared some special moments together and one occasion when Jonah was on a book signing tour in Edinburgh, the call came in that Jonah wanted to catch up with the Hastings’ brothers. He only had an hour to spare so both Gavin and I trotted down to the Glasshouse Hotel and spent a magical hour with him.
He also had a magnetic presence. People were drawn to him. And he gave so much of his time to others. It was when he was out with the public glare when I felt you got to know the man. And what a lovely man he was. He was always interested to know what you were doing and he was always willing to offer advice or share a story. Whether it was at World Cups in France, New Zealand, England or at the Hong Kong 7s he always made time to chat. ‘How’s your bro mate?’ was often the cry and just a few weeks ago he touched another member of my family.
My daughter Kerry-Anne and I had attended the Rugby World Cup final and Jonah had come up to say hello to us. Kerry-Anne was wearing my All Blacks jersey that I swapped back with Frank Bunce following that quarter final match back in 1995 and she was over the moon when he obliged her with a photo. He engaged in conversation and was interested to know why she was supporting the All Blacks.
She had woken yesterday to hear the news of his untimely death and phoned me in the morning to tell me that she had been in tears. He had that effect on people. He was without doubt the greatest player I ever played against and a fantastic man off the pitch as well.