Red and gold blaze of reality hits Lomu

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The Independent Online

It was not so bad that the knot of Perpignan's supporters in the Arms Park's north stand were taunting Jonah Lomu, who played on the wing nearest them in the first half. "You sap!" they seemed to cry, when it was of course "USAP", the acronym of the Catalan club's full name. But on a collectively distressing afternoon for the Cardiff Blues, Lomu finished with an expression on his face which suggested the first version was not far from the truth.

In this sixth match of his wholly remarkable comeback, Lomu perhaps knew the fear of failure for the first time. Previously in the Celtic League, and against the Italian side Calvisano in Europe, the old All Black with the new kidney had survived on goodwill from all men and the simple fact of his reappearance 18 months after a kidney transplant. He told the world that, like Frank Spencer, he was getting better and better every day, and that his great dream of a World Cup recall for New Zealand in 2007 was alive. Here, Lomu steadily melted away amid the red-and-gold flames of Catalonian opponents who did not want him to play ball. It was the clash of a stirring story which transcends the game with the crushing reality of sport.

"If we go to Leeds next Sunday and win we could still sneak through," said David Young, the Blues' director of coaching, who is in the awkward position of picking the 30-year-old recruit ahead of Chris Czekaj, a young Welsh prospect. Lomu has never sneaked anywhere in his life. The kidney disease which rendered him unable to walk and took him onto dialysis in 2003 meant, by his reckoning, he was operating at only 80 per cent capacity when he ran all over England at the 1995 World Cup. But that Lomu would have taken events by the scruff of the neck and thrown them on to a different course. Lomu Mk II has the familiar strut and rooster's nodding head but only a couple of initial thrusts as first and second receiver gave any hint of the monstrous attacking talent of old. From later phases the lunging step with the knee held high bore the menace of a hoodie being mugged by a grandmother.

The last quarter was almost embarrassing. Lomu received a horror of a grasscutter pass, did an undignified and ungainly version of the splits and presented possession to Perpignan in the process. His next contribution was to field a high kick from Nicolas Laharrague, the visitors' fly-half and principal destroyer with the boot. Lomu rocked on his heels and the ball rolled forward from his clumsy grasp. It led directly to Perpignan's second try and the conclusion of a comprehensive 21-3 defeat.

It was perhaps for the best that Cardiff's benefactor Peter Thomas was away climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. Lomu's personal battle is now in its proper context. He is due to stay in Wales with his wife and manager Fiona until May, but the other pieces in the jigsaw - an NPC season with North Harbour followed by Super 14 for the Hurricanes - are surely in doubt. The novelty value which prompted Cardiff to stump up a modest retainer and £3,000 per appearance when Munster among others decided not to dabble may be wearing off. Yesterday's attendance was 300 fewer than when Calvisano came in December, albeit still double what the Arms Park had been used to.

And yet there were still a couple of dozen youngsters wanting to mob their hero at the final whistle.

They jostled to store his image on the mega-pixels of their mobile phones, and if the performance belonged on the smallest of screens, history has no need to look too unkindly on the mega-man that is or was Jonah Lomu.