What it was really like to line up against Jonah Lomu

My first contact with him came when we fly-hacked the ball away from our 22 and it went straight into Jonah’s hands. I pushed up, he ran at me and I thought, ‘here is a big lad running at me, I know what he’s going to do – he’s going to run over the top of me.’ So I went in to make the tackle and tried to anticipate his weight coming in and fall back with him and hopefully drag him down that way.

But he had other plans. He stepped me and, before I knew it, I was off balance on the ground and he was scoring under the posts. I didn’t have too many one-on-ones with him, however, as they kept using him in the midfield. Thankfully my reputation wasn’t hugely affected by his prowess!

He was so much more powerful. His quads were twice the size of mine – Jesus. It was like getting into a ring with a super-heavyweight. 

But I didn’t feel inadequate afterwards, I was more I awe. We had just witnessed a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime athlete.

A few years later, Ireland played a World XV in the ‘Peace International’ just after the Good Friday agreement. I was having a beer after the match with Eric Rush, the New Zealand Sevens legend, and asked me if I had sent a fax to Jonah before that 1995 match. 

I said, ‘what do you mean?’ And he said that Jonah received a fax from me, from our hotel, saying that I was going to do all sorts of things to him and make a fool of him on the pitch.

And, for the second time with regard to Jonah Lomu, the blood drained from my face. Obviously I hadn’t and implored Eric to go back to New Zealand and talk to anyone remotely interested in rugby – so, the whole population – and please impress upon them that I did not do any such thing.

Jonah did find out that it wasn’t me, eventually. He said he thought it was one of my friends who did it as a prank. Well, they wouldn’t be much of a friend…

Maybe it was someone from the NZRFU? From their point of view maybe he was too relaxed and maybe they were trying to really get him going, to make him more aggressive.

But, God, they really didn’t need to do that.

Richard Wallace, elder brother of Paul and David, has been a commercial pilot since retiring from rugby in 1999

Tony Underwood, England’s right wing in their 45-29 World Cup semi-final loss in 1995

I think the fact that we’re still talking about it 25 years later is testament to what it’s like to face him. 

Without wishing to sound dismissive about the preparation, the tournament was very much one of the first occasions he had burst onto the scene. He had played some Tri-Nations stuff before the World Cup and then played excellently against Ireland and Scotland, but this was 1995 – it was amateur. Your ability to be able to study these things or embrace the level that the game is at now in preparing to face opposition teams was very different.

We were almost victims of our own success the week before when we beat Australia in the quarter-final. It was a massive victory against the world champions; a lot of the 1995 squad had played in the 1991 final that Australia won and it had hurt them. There was a lot of animosity between the two teams. David Campese was a major character and ego in their team, and very vocal with it. 

So, with that win, and such a good win, we almost felt like we’d done it. We felt like we could almost walk home with our heads held high.

There was a lot of friction between the RFU and the England team – the RFU ‘old farts’ stuff hadn’t quite gone away. So that was still going on. But the RFU was wealthy and, almost as an olive branch to us, they whisked us up to Sun City, almost as an unplanned celebration.

But that impacted our preparation for New Zealand. The leadership group were uncertain about going. But they felt it might be good to get a break from the monotony of what was going on as we’d been in South Africa for quite a few weeks by that point. We were probably up there too long and it was too late by the time we came back down – figuratively as well as geographically…

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