For an hour the crowd sat transfixed on one man as Jonah Lomu took his first tentative steps in the comeback to end all comebacks.
His performance was safe rather than spectacular, but the All Black legend was still gratefully applauded as he walked off the field after his first competitive game for nearly two and a half years. It was left to his new team-mates Robert Sidoli, Martyn Williams, Rhys Williams and Chris Czekaj to ensure that the Cardiff Blues took all the points available in this Heineken Cup tie. The Welsh side's win would have been more convincing had Nick Robinson not had a poor day with the boot.
It was clear that the result was a side issue to the real show. Such is the draw of the giant wing that Lomu fever had gripped even the football-obsessed Italians. Some 4,500 spectators, four times Calvisano's usual attendance, crammed into the tiny Centre Sportivo San Michele to catch a glimpse of the big man. The rest of world rugby held its breath.
An unremarkable ground surrounded by fields in the shadow of the Alps was hardly the setting in which one would expect to see the eagerly awaited return of the most iconic figure in the game. But maybe the humble setting was fitting for one of the game's gentlemen.
The big man's single-handed demolition of England's World Cup hopes in South Africa in 1995 remains a thrilling memory, but the humility with which he has dealt with his rare and potentially fatal kidney condition has captured the hearts and minds of sports fans across the globe. "It's great to finally have got out there and got back to doing what I love," said Lomu. "Playing rugby is what I have always wanted to do and it was a privilege to finally be back. This was my first game in 28 months so I've just got to take it step by step. Physically I feel fine and inside I have got that buzz again. I enjoyed taking the knocks and being part of a tough game of rugby."
Yesterday could not have felt further from his glory days though, and it will be a while before we discover if we are witnessing a truly phenomenal comeback or a former great chasing a pipe dream.
Lomu was an observer for most of the afternoon, loitering out wide as his team-mates scrapped in a fractious game. When he did get the ball in his hands, his impact was limited. It is of course early days, but while the size is still there the frightening explosion of pace apparently is not.
Nevertheless, the former All Black did have a hand in the game's opening try, and with his first touch to boot. After seven minutes Lomu crashed into the Calvisano defence, sucking in defenders and opening space around him. Andy Powell followed and Sidoli ignored Lomu outside to score.
After that Lomu was kept quiet by two defenders whenever he touched the ball, as Calvisano fought hard for an hour.
Cardiff were held to a half-time lead of 13-10, but then the scrum-half Mike Phillips inspired two tries in three minutes while Calvisano's prop Martin Castrogiovanni sat in the sin-bin. Lomu left the field in between and the job was done for both player and team.
Calvisano: J Van Schalkwyk; E Mulieri, M Pratichetti, C Zanoletti, A Vodo; H Kruger, P Griffen (E Candiago, 74); S Perugini, G Intoppa (L Ghiraldini, 66), M Castrogiovanni, M Nguamo, J Purll, R Mandelli (L Cittadini, 55-62; A Zanni, 68), W Brosnihan, M Zaffiri (capt).
Cardiff Blues: R Williams (capt); C Czekaj, M Stcherbina, T Davies (L Thomas, 79), J Lomu (J Robinson, 60); N Robinson, M Phillips (R Powell, 75); J Yapp, R Thomas, M Jones (G Jenkins, 18-27; 40-45; 60), D Jones, R Sidoli, A Powell (R Sowden-Taylor, 68), X Rush, M Williams.
Referee: M Changleng (Scotland).Reuse content