Jonah Lomu took the sport by storm at the 1995 World Cup

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Richard Wallace, Ireland’s right wing in their 43-19 World Cup pool-stage loss in 1995

By far the most compelling difference between Ireland and New Zealand in 1995 was Jonah – he was exceptional that day and he just got better, to eventually redefine wing play.

It was not the case that we knew about him. This was 1995, pre-video analysis, and in Ireland we relied on whatever southern hemisphere rugby the BBC broadcast – which was scant. Around that time you might have got some highlights from the Hong Kong Sevens or something.

Before the World Cup, Lomu had not really broken into the All Blacks team but had made his mark at schoolboy and Sevens level. So, in terms of exposure in the media – there was none. In terms of video analysis in my day and the days of early professionalism – none of that was there in 1995. So we didn’t really know anything about him!

I would have gone into the game totally blindsided if it hadn’t been for a journalist. We were staying in the Sunnyside Park hotel in Johannesburg and to get to the team room you had to walk through a terrace that you could access from outside the hotel.

I walked through doors of the hotel to be accosted by this journalist – I can’t remember who – two days before the game. He asked to have a quick chat and, long before the days where the media were segregated from the players, I said no problem. We started chatting and more or less off the bat he says: ‘So you’re up against Jonah Lomu in a few days’ time – what are your thoughts?’ And I really didn’t have any!

I said something along the lines of: ‘You know, he’s an All Black wing and all All Black wings I’ve come across have been great so I have no doubt that he’s going to provide stern opposition.’

Straightaway the journalist realised that I had no idea who Jonah was or, at least, his potential. So he says three things to me and with each phrase my pallor changed. It started with him telling me that he’s 6ft 4ins and I thought, ‘Ok, he’s tall, so?’. Then he said he does the 100 metres in 10.5 seconds and I thought, ‘Ok, tall, lanky, quick – I’ve played against guys like Nigel Walker, for example, who was an Olympic sprinter and if you got your angles right you could deal with them’. 

And then he dropped the clanger. ‘He’s 19 stone,’ he said. I must have gone pale. I had no idea how to react to this so I just said, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’. And, of course, he never fell.

Former Saracen Richard Wallace won 29 caps for Ireland and toured with the Lions in 1993

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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 in 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 he 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…

Tony Underwood (left) looks on as Lomu scores another at the 1995 World Cup

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So, how did we prepare for it? An element of overconfidence. We’d won a Grand Slam and we’d just beaten the world champions. We had a couple of iffy group games which weren’t fantastic but we beat an Argentina pack that was recognised as a real force, so we headed into the game with a lot of confidence. We felt as if we had the upper-hand up front. I wasn’t in the selection meeting but from what I understand it was quick and they kept the same team.

In terms of my preparation, there’s not a lot you can physically do in a few days leading up to a game. I couldn’t pile on a few more stone; I couldn’t suddenly learn to be a better defender, which wasn’t the best part of my game anyway, so that wasn’t going to change; and there wasn’t really an element of changing the game plan either to think about specifically how we’d deal with Jonah.

It was 25 years ago so I will apologise now to Jack, Les, Will and John Elliott, and anyone else in the squad who might have had a conversation throughout the week, but I don’t recall conversations about Jonah ever happening. I recall a conversation asking if I felt OK about it and, well, what was I supposed to say? I was feeling good and I wanted to play in a semi-final of the World Cup. I had to go in with utmost confidence and think that because he’s a big man, if I get some space then I should take advantage of being the smaller man with a bit more manoeuvrability. Unfortunately, I never really got that.

Collectively and as a team we had been shocked by him, not just (Mike) Catty and me. It was guys up front; some of our bigger, better defenders in the pack that were getting bumped by him, too. Such strength added to such speed and agility.

But I didn’t really dwell on it – after, we did the Pizza Hut advert, for those who remember.

In the aftermath, my focus wasn’t on Jonah. For me, my process had to be taking ownership of the fact that I had had this… not humiliation, but I’d been made to look and feel insignificant and I was totally ‘out-physicalled’. It was about to become my profession, and if I wanted to continue playing at the top of the game I had to go through a personal journey of my own, so the focus couldn’t be on Jonah, it had to be on how I moved forward and handled – to a certain extent – the crisis that I was facing at that time.

My confidence took a big hit and I had to turn that around. There was absolutely a lot of soul-searching.

After many years as a pilot, Tony Underwood now works with Wordplay, bringing together high-performing leaders to help clients face their own Jonahs and combat adversity and crisis

Todd Blackadder, former New Zealand and Canterbury forward who played both with and against Lomu

The team talk preparing to play against him was really simple: absolutely do everything we can to give him no time and space. I’ve been in Canterbury and Crusader teams where we have done it really well. So we would always prepare to get up and shut him down before he got moving. We knew if we gave him time and space, that power…

We had games against Jonah where our plan worked, and we had games against him where it didn’t matter what plan we had, he could just steamroll us. Him and Joeli Vidiri at Lancaster Park against Counties Manukau for a home semi-final, they put 17 points on us in about five minutes. They absolutely dominated the game, dominated the collisions and we couldn’t stop them.

Todd Blackadder (centre) won 12 caps for New Zealand and captained the Crusaders to two Super Rugby titles

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Trying to defend him on the blindside as a flanker? We just tried to make sure that we had a steady scrum and put their set piece under pressure. Rather than having to deal with him, try and put their scrum and half-back under pressure so they get s— ball and they can’t attack from it. Try not to give him the ball on the front foot because if we did that it was tough.

But playing with him was so good. I always felt more likely to win with him on my team – he was that much of a presence. And he was always well respected as a man of character – he was a great guy. He always gave a lot to his team and he was a great team-mate.

After leaving the director of rugby role at Bath in 2019, Todd Blackadder became head coach of Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan