Jonah Lomu’s four-try demolition of England at my beloved Newlands in Cape Town remains one of the highlights of my rugby writing career. I was privileged to be in the press box, with the perfect view of Jonah in full flight on this day, 18th June, 26 years ago. It was electrifying, writes Mark Keohane. I will never forget it.
The England camp were talking a big game. ‘Jonah Lomu?’ they asked. ‘What about Tony Underwood?’
Poor Tony Underwood, the England right winger and brother of the more celebrated left winger Rory, had a target on his back long before big Jonah brushed him aside in the 1995 World Cup semi-final at Newlands.
Jonah’s four-try demolition of England will always be remembered for the try when he ran over South African-born fullback Mike Catt. It happened on the grand stand side of Newlands and my press box seat was between the 10 and 22 metres line. It was breathtaking.
There is no way to do justice to the live moment when Jonah stream rolled Catt, stumbled and kept on going for 15 metres to score arguably the most famous – and celebrated – of his 37 Test tries.
I was at Twickenham four years later when Jonah again destroyed England in the World Cup, but Sunday, June 18, at Newlands will forever be among my most cherished rugby memories.
A sports writing colleague of mine, Gary Lemke, was at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing when Usain Bolt ran the world’s fastest time of 9.69 seconds. Bolt would run a 9.58 at the World Championships in Berlin the next year.
Lemke said to me that watching Bolt run on YouTube was spectacular. ‘Now imagine watching him run live.’
That is how I felt about watching Lomu live against England at Newlands.
YouTube videos of his four tries just don’t measure up. It was so much more powerful, in real time, when watching from Newlands’s Grand Stand.
The England camp had obviously decided the best way of defence was to attack. The England players and coaching staff, pre-match, made a point of talking about Jonah Lomu. They were insistent that Jonah hadn’t faced the quality of England wingers, like Tony and Rory Underwood.
They were outspoken in saying that Jonah hadn’t played a team with England’s all-round quality.
The English, pre-match, were brash, bold and full of bravado.
‘We have a plan’ boasted England captain Will Carling on the eve of the World Cup semi-final.
The first question put to Carling in the aftermath of Lomu’s destruction of England went something like this: ‘Will, you said you had a plan for Jonah … could you talk us through the plan.’
England coach Jack Rowell interjected, admonished the English journalist and said that instead of trying to mock England’s captain, why could he not focus on the most extraordinary individual performance, possibly in the history of the game.
Jannie de Beer, four years later at the Stade de France in Paris in the 1999 World Cup quarter-final, kicked five drop goals in the space of 30 minutes to beat England. I got to see that from the press box and it was special.
Lomu’s four tries were in a different class because it was a combination of brutal and beautiful.
England’s players, pre-game, may have been bullish and arrogant, but after the whipping they were magnanimous in their praise for Jonah and for what the world had just witnessed.
The All Blacks won 45-29, which would suggest England were competitive. But they weren’t. The All Blacks led 35-3 in the second half, emptied their bench and basically stopped playing. They knew they were in the final.
All Blacks No 8 Zinzan Brooke kicked the most outrageous of drop goals from 45 metres. He caught the ball on the run and, from the Railway Stand side and on the angle, hammered home the sweetest of kicks. The ball cleared the posts by another 10 metres. It was indicative of the day the All Blacks were having. In the opening hour, everything they touched translated into a score.
The brilliant England centre Jeremy Guscott, having played against Jonah at Newlands in 1995 and at Twickenham in 1999, marveled at Jonah the Giant.
Guscott, in a tribute to Lomu, wrote: ‘In addition to his huge power, Jonah had superb acceleration, fantastic balance and that beautiful style of running. When he needed to smash people, he lent into them and crumpled them, when he feinted, he could lean in and then step past them and his out-and-out pace was the equal of South African flyer Bryan Habana in his prime.’
Guscott, in recalling the semi-final, wrote: ‘We discussed how we had to get to him immediately, because once he had taken three strides, he would be up to top pace and would have covered 10-15 metres, but he just blew our plans out of the water. We knew what was coming but we just couldn’t deal with it. We thought we could, but we couldn’t. It was a shock; when you are close to him you cannot believe how such a big man can run so quickly.
‘In that game I made a break and when things closed down, I passed to 6ft 5 inches, 18 stone England loose-forward ‘Big Ben’ Clarke. Unfortunately for him, he was near Lomu and to this day whenever he sees me Ben still gives me grief, because he said when Jonah tackled him the lights went out.’
Catt, buried into the Newlands turf, would joke many years later that he couldn’t actually remember the moment Jonah ran over him, but he did remember All Blacks lock Robin Brooke screaming in his ear that ‘it was only the start and that there was more to come’.
Indeed, there was: Jonah would finish with four tries, swatting aside Tony Underwood and then gliding for 50 metres for his final score.
I wasn’t in Beijing in 2008 to see Usain Bolt run 9.69 and I wasn’t in Berlin in 2009 to see his world record 9.58. I also wasn’t in London in 2012 when Bolt ran 9.63 in the Olympic final.
But I was at Newlands on Sunday, June 18, 1995 when Jonah scored those four tries against England.
Any adjective would be inadequate. You simply had to be there.
Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup
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