Rugby

Neil Francis On The Time Jonah Lomu Announced Himself To The World Against Ireland

Neil Francis On The Time Jonah Lomu Announced Himself To The World Against Ireland

We spoke to Neil Francis following the death of Jonah Lomu early this morning. Francis played against Lomu in the 1995 World Cup and later played alongside him for the Barbarians.

In their preparations for the 1995 World Cup opener against New Zealand, Ireland watched a couple of videos of their opponents playing against France in the latter's 1994 tour down under. It was a series made famous by Jean Luc Sadourny's 'try from the end of the world' to give France victory in the last minute of the second test in Auckland.

Jonah Lomu played on the wing in both losing tests (the first test being his debut) without scoring a try. By contrast, his opponent Emile Ntamack had great joy down his wing, scoring in the Auckland test.

The Irish reckoned they had spotted a weakness.

However, by the time the World Cup had rolled around, word of Lomu's 'sensational' performances in New Zealand trial matches had reached the Irish camp.

Although, Lomu had yet to score an international try, Neil Francis told us that Ireland were braced for what was to come.

We did a bit of work on the All-Blacks just to see what we could do. We had a couple of videos of how the All-Blacks had played the previous year. We looked at the France game first, which was his first match for the All-Blacks. And he was absolutely like a fish out of water. He was hopelessly exposed. And I think Ntamack scored a couple of tries against him and we thought 'okay, we have a weakness here.'

But typical of the All-Blacks, they knew exactly what they had. They had dynamite. If it had been Ireland that had a player of that potential they probably would have said 'go on off and sort yourself out and come back to us as a better player'. Whereas, what the All-Black system does is they realise how good these players are and they develop them and bring them on to be the players they could be.

They had left him after the French game and there were some serious doubts about whether he was good enough. There was an All-Black trial and he was sensational in that and we knew that this guy was going to be a serious proposition.

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Lomu owes his first ever try in international rugby to the generosity of Irish scrum half Michael Bradley, who booted the ball straight at him after Ireland had won a lineout. From there, he crashed over Richard Wallace to touch down. Francis found this especially hard to stomach considering he had just won the lineout.

 I actually won that line-out and I gave it to Brads and he just dinked it out for a lineout and kicked it directly into Lomu. And I just looked at Brads and said 'what did you do that for?'

Read more: Balls Remembers: A Profile Of The First Ever Leinster Heineken Cup Team In 1995

Ireland, having only just won the wooden spoon decider in Cardiff and promptly becoming the first top 8 side ever to lose a match to Italy, started the game well and still led after 20 minutes. The scoreboard had a different look after Lomu got into his stride. He managed to score another try in the second half but the two tries alone don't tell you half the story. Showing freakish and bewildering power, he laid on tries for Walter Little and Josh Kronfeld.

He scored two against us that day but it was the one he made for Josh Kronfeld is the one that stands out for me, where he busted through about four or five tackles and Simon Geoghegan nailed him on the line but he just popped it up to Kronfeld who was on his shoulder and he scored in the corner. You're in the middle of an 80 minute test against the All-Blacks and it's rare that you take your eyes off the job in hand or lose any kind of focus but I think all of us were looking at the big screen in Ellis Park in Jo'burg and sort of seeing how many tackles he beat and then the crowd counting them... He was awesome that day.

I walked out of the tunnel and he was right beside me and I thought 'Mother of God'. 6 ft 5, but just his frame and his thighs were enormous. He got on to the ball after two minutes and the speed was just bewildering. He was marking Richie Wallace but a lot of the time Simon (Geoghegan) would come over and make a couple of tackles on him... But his speed and his power and his pickup... From a standing start, he was able to get to max speed in just a very short space of time.

I would have known quite a few of the All-Blacks. Some of them came into our dressing room  and some of us went into theirs. And I was sitting with Ian Jones and we were just chatting away. I don't think we were having a pint but we were having a drink of something. I swapped jerseys with Ian Jones and I said, 'do you want to swap nicks?' And he said 'well, I've given them away but the only person who'd fit you would be Jonah'. So, I have his nicks at home because as a 6 ft 7 second row, I was the only guy who'd fit into his nicks. They're in the attic somewhere.

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Francis would later play alongside Lomu for the Barbarians in a two game series in Australia. A gang of them went out for lunch one day and Francis got an insight into Lomu's personality.

I had the pleasure of playing with him. I played for the Barbarians against Australia in a series there in Melbourne and in Sydney. So I spent the best part of a week with him. Complex guy. Nice guy. Very humble fella. He was painfully shy. We had lunch one day and there was about five or six of us and there were stories going back and forth across the table and it was great fun and we had a couple of bottles of wine. And Jonah was sitting with us. And he kind of listened in and some of the stories were quite bawdy and he kinda laughed but looking across at him I don't think he got any of them.

He had a rough upbringing. It was bewildering how he got to where he was considering his upbringing. He was in two or three life threatening situations... The gangs in Auckland, particularly in the Polynesian part of town are as dangerous as they are anywhere else in the world.

Everytime, he got on the ball, there was a buzz of anticipation. And he never really disappointed. He'd always do something with it. As a superstar, he wasn't the most articulate guy. And you'd see him on television on interviews and he'd struggle because everyone anticipated there'd be a personality to match this freakish talent and there wasn't. He was a simple, humble guy. And he struggled. He struggled in social scenarios. He struggled in front of a microphone. But he did his talking out on the pitch and that was the key to it.

Read more: The Decline In Crowds At Munster Matches Was Wholly Predictable

Where does he sit on the pantheon of all time greats? As a winger and a finisher, Francis regards him as the best ever. As an all-round player, he isn't quite there.

As an out and out try scorer and as a threat, he'd be no.1. Maybe Campese on one wing and him on the other. But as an all-round player, there'd be a fair bit to go. If you compare and contrast with someone like Dan Carter, whose skill levels are just unmatchable, he'd be a long way away. But as an out an out winger and a threat, he was pretty much unsurpassed.

Jonah Lomu was a popular guy among those from that era who played with and against him. Late last night and early this morning, Franno was receiving texts from ex-international about the terrible news.

At 1 o'clock last night, I got a lot of texts from people. My phone was kind of hopping. Emails and texts. Even Jim Staples works in the City (of London) and gets on a train at about quarter to 6 in the morning and he sent me a text. He was a popular guy, he was a friendly fella and... You know, it was always going to happen unfortunately. He took a risk flying. When you've nephrotic syndrome, clots are one of the big threats to your life. And, really, going long distance from London back to Dubai. He died of a heart attack and obviously a clot got caught somewhere. He was at risk. Maybe he should have sailed but that's the unfortunate thing with his illness, it was always going to happen. Dead at 40, like. It's dreadful.

Read more: Tributes Pour In Following The Death Of Rugby Legend Jonah Lomu

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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