Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Savea shows glimmer of Lomu

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Left wing's work against the Crusaders was frightening, destructive and a flashback to the past.

Julian Savea fends off Israel Dagg last week. Photo / Allsport / Getty Images
Julian Savea fends off Israel Dagg last week. Photo / Allsport / Getty Images

Just as the World Cup final in 1995 has been my most compelling rugby occasion, the All Blacks semifinal a week before delivered all sorts of vibrant exploits.

Those memories came flooding back last week as Hurricanes left wing Julian Savea rampaged about the Cake Tin.

His work was frightening ... not only for Tom Marshall and Israel Dagg. Strong defenders like Kieran Read felt the pain of missing the powerhouse Hurricane.

On the Newlands pitch nearly 17 years ago, it was Jonah Lomu's staggering personal impact as the All Blacks answered the lingering pain of defeat against England two years before.

The best run for England on the wing that mid-June afternoon came late in the test when a streaker burst 60m down the sideline before he was collared and taken away to one of the police vans.

Hundreds of police and security forces manned the avenues leading into and around Newlands as anxieties escalated about violent protests in the tournament.

For nearly 50,000 fans who attended the test, the mood was festive. It was helped by the slow winding walk into the park, past all the food, beverage and memorabilia sellers, past the bands and entertainment groups who populated the grassy areas off to the side.

There was the good-natured banter from the To and Froms, the taunting, singing and joking that mark them out as A-grade supporters of their rugby side.

If you weren't quite in the mood for that second World Cup semifinal, the festivities outside Newlands changed all that.

While rain had threatened to cancel the opening semifinal in Durban the day before, any wind and rain had stayed well clear of Cape Town.

The All Blacks were well psyched up. When the haka was done, Lomu bounded towards them with his own personal challenge.

He'd spent much of the night pacing the corridors at the All Black hotel and even wandered around the carpark to soak up some time.

He re-read the newspaper taunts from his opposite Tony Underwood that were taped to the mirror in the room he shared with Frank Bunce.

When Underwood winked at Lomu at the end of the haka, the All Black wing felt that reaction was disrespectful. He promised to make Underwood suffer.

It took about two minutes. Lomu retrieved a poor pass, pushed off Underwood, beat Will Carling and then ran over the top of Mike Catt en route to the line. Lock Ian Jones ran past and gave Catt a gobful to remind him there was more coming.

Up in the press box, some of the Kiwi media contingent felt similarly towards a few of their English colleagues, but wisely held their thoughts.

When Lomu scored his second try and the margin stretched to 25 at a point a minute, the All Black coaches knew they had the test and we glowed inwardly as we readied to type our reports.

Not long after, Lomu ran down Underwood from behind and mocked him about the rest of his armoury. Two more tries from Lomu in the second half iced a spirited comeback from England.

The big man was mobbed as the crowd feted the four-try hero and security guards took some time to get their charge off the ground to the safety and celebrations in the All Black dressing room.

It was another episode in Lomumania, a phenomenon which had yet to engulf New Zealand but exploded at the '95 World Cup.

It detonated after Lomu scored two majestic tries in the All Blacks' first match against Ireland and soared from there. The big man was mobbed in public and several times had to resort to fire escape exits and armed help to escape his followers.

The trend was best understood in South Africa as I remember my editor asking me at one stage to tone down the number of Lomu stories.

Lomu, the 1.96m, 120kg speedster with the power of a D9 and the poise of a tightrope walker, was rewriting the manual on wing play. Men of his size were supposed to wear the small numbers on their jerseys but this colossus wrought terror in the number 11 black uniform.

After Lomu's semifinal feats, Minister for the Environment and former Springbok captain, Dawie de Villiers suggested in parliament that Lomu be outlawed.

"I am aware of the fact that section 31 of the Environment Conservation Act gives me the right to stop any development that I regard as a threat to the environment ... Perhaps I can use my power to stop Mr Lomu, I am giving it some thought."

Since those times, as rugby has gone far more professional, big wings have been encouraged.

Savea is the latest, a fearsome athlete who emerged into the All Blacks last year and a bit like Lomu, had an awkward start.

The coaching staff worked on his defensive and high-ball issues and sent him back out to run into some solid end-of-year form. This year he has looked more threatening.

His work last week against the Crusaders was fearsome. Savea was destructive from the start and maintained that impact while also showing he could defend with similar consistent venom.

No one has been quite like Lomu but Savea's work was a flashback to that time and especially when he flattened Dagg to score his try. That was oh, oh, oh, oh so good.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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