Lomu looms large on Wallace's horizon

RUGBY WORLD CUP: Ireland face a fearsome new All Black back tomorrow. 'I watched him on the video and he filled the whole of the screen'
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Noel Murphy, the Ireland manager, recently remarked that rugby was the only sport in which flyweight could be matched against heavyweight. He was talking about Ireland's match against New Zealand at Ellis Park tomorrow evening, an encounter encapsulated in the David versus Goliath confrontation between Richard Wallace and Jonah Lomu.

On the evidence of his devastating display in the Hong Kong Sevens, Lomu could be the sensation of the World Cup. He scored seven tries in Hong Kong and was voted the player of the tournament. It is not unusual for a wing to score tries but Lomu, who is employed by the ASB Bank of New Zealand, is different. In New Zealand they refer to him as Jonah the whale. He has just turned 20 and has just slimmed down from 20st to 19. Not only is he the biggest threequarter in the history of the game but the biggest player in the current All Blacks squad.

"He is younger, bigger and faster than Va'aiga Tuigamala," Eric Rush, another New Zealand wing, said. Considering that Tuigamala has been a powerhouse for Wigan this season, the All Blacks have great expectations of Lomu. He scored two tries in the All Blacks final trial and two in a match against the New Zealand Barbarians. His name has already been linked to Wigan and another rugby league side, the Brisbane Broncos but if New Zealand succeed in their plan to create a "Super Union" next season (about NZ$12m, or pounds 5m, is the budget for players' wages) Lomu could give up his day job and visit the bank as a customer rather than an employee.

"In the final trial I saw him coming towards me and I lined him up," Michael Brewer, the Canterbury flanker, said. "I only managed to get hold of one leg and had it been any other international back I would have murdered him. Jo is immensely strong and powerful on his feet. He can kick through tackles. He's always been great with the ball in his hands but he's improving every day. He's becoming a more rounded player."

Lomu is not just enormous he's fast (100m in 11 seconds). When he played against the England schools under-18 team in Dunedin in 1993 the visiting management were seriously worried about the threat of physical damage to their young charges. England lost that match 52-5.

If Lomu has a weakness it is that he can look ponderous in defence. It is not that easy to turn a juggernaut on a sixpence. In attack, though, he looks awesome. "The only way to stop him," Brewer said, "is by tackling him around the ankles. It is a brave man who goes down there."

In one corner is Lomu (1.95m, 118kg). In the other is Wallace (1.8m, 88kg). The Garryowen wing, a financial consultant, said: "I watched him on the video and he filled the whole of the screen. But he's very young and inexperienced and I intend to exploit that. They're all the same size around the ankles. I plan to hit him as low as possible. I enjoy all aspects of rugby including the physical part. I've never shirked from tackling and I don't intend to start now. The bigger they are the heavier they fall, as long as it's not on top of me."

Lomu has only two caps and after his debut against France last year he admitted: "I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I didn't really know what I was doing. I'm a lot more confident now." Lomu, who has been nursed along by Rush and Frank Bunce, is not the only potential hero of a squad that could go all the way.

One of the problems for the All Blacks, whose star has been overshadowed by Australia, South Africa and France (the French, uniquely, won a series 2-0 in New Zealand last year) since winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987, has been a lack of direction at stand-off. Nobody adequately filled the boots of their record points-scorer Grant Fox.

Nobody, that is, until the spectacular arrival of the 22-year-old student Andrew Mehrtens. After a series of brilliant performances for Canterbury, who successfuly defended the Ranfurly Shield, Mehrtens was brought into the World Cup squad in February. On his recent international debut against Canada he outfoxed Fox by scoring 30 points, a world record for a debutant, in a 73-7 victory. Whether Mehrtens has the durability to outlast Fox is another matter but on one aspect of play there is no debate. Mehrtens is considerably faster, perhaps the fastest stand-off in the tournament.

In 11 World Cup matches since 1987 the All Blacks, who watched the South Africa- Australia match on television, have been beaten once, by the Wallabies four years ago in the semi-finals in Dublin and that was regarded as a national disaster. "We suffered because we didn't put in the hard work," Brewer said. "We simply weren't fit enough." All that has changed. The All Blacks have been training twice a day for nearly six months with sessions lasting up to five hours.

"That means it's a professional sport," Brewer said. "This is no time to hold on to tradition." They have prepared for the World Cup by holding not one but three training camps. "The rod of steel is back in the side," Brewer said. This is bad news, not only for Noel Murphy but also for Beverly Brewer, Michael's wife. She happens to be Irish.

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