Lomu storms back onto Test stage
Jonah Lomu, probably the most celebrated rugby player in the world, will make his first international appearance for New Zealand in more than a year in Saturday's Test against England at Old Trafford.
The man who shredded the England defence with four tries in the 1995 World Cup semi-finals has been given a surprise recall after making a remarkable recovery from a severe kidney complaint which threatened to end his rugby career.
England meanwhile have offered up fresh hostages to fortune, making two changes, both in the front row, from the side that struggled through last weekend's mediocre 15-15 draw with Australia at Twickenham. Darren Garforth wins his fourth cap at tight-head prop and Richard Cockerill, who replaced Andy Long for the second half of that game, stays in the side at hooker.
Lomu, who in the year following the World Cup earned nearly £1 million, secured his place with a solid all-round performance that included two tries in Tuesday night's 59-22 victory over Emerging England at Huddersfield. Last week, the 6ft 5in, 19st wing, whose place on the tour of Britain and Ireland was in doubt until a few days before departure, also scored a try in the A international against Wales at Pontypridd.
"I'm not surprised Jonah has been picked - he's a world-class player," said Clive Woodward, the England coach. "At least with Jonah you know exactly what you have to do - the man he replaced, Glen Osborne, must be a bit annoyed because he's been playing well and he had an excellent game on Tuesday. In fact, the All Blacks have three or four guys who could have caused us problems in the left-wing position."
John Hart, the New Zealand coach, paid tribute to the tenacity and self-discipline Lomu demonstrated during the long months of illness when his future hung in the balance. At one stage, the Auckland and Counties player, who appeared in a couple of games towards the end of New Zealand's domestic season, suffered side-effects from the medication for his illness which made it doubly difficult for him to get back to full fitness.
Sale's David Rees, who made his international debut in the Australia game, will have the challenging task of marking Lomu, who can only be stopped with a tackle around the legs unless he happens to get brought down by sheer weight of numbers. "I thought the Emerging England team tackled Lomu well, but he still managed to get away a couple of times," said Woodward.
However, England will mainly be concerned about achieving stability in their scrum and building the kind of platform that might allow them to generate rhythm and momentum in the loose. The Leicester duo, Cockerill and Garforth, who already have three caps each, certainly possess enough experience to hold their own against the New Zealand front row: whether they also have sufficient pace and stamina to maintain a high work-rate around the field is another matter.
As it happens, Leicester's famed ABC Club - loose head Graham Rowntree will be on the bench - have not been especially commanding in the tight this season, possibly because other parts of the team have struggled, with knock-on effect up front. Nevertheless, Cockerill and Garforth, who at 31 is the oldest player in the side, proved they could cut the mustard in last summer's Tests against Argentina, probably the strongest scrummagers in international rugby.
"It was problems in the scrum that stopped us playing last Saturday," pointed out Woodward, explaining that England's other front-row debutant Will Green had not been considered for the New Zealand game due to a back injury. "The Australia game ended up in a shambles and I felt there was no point in bringing on substitutes, Cockerill apart. We know we'll have to improve 200 per cent to compete against the All Blacks," he said.
Alex King, the Wasps fly-half who withdrew with a knee problem 48 hours before the Australia game, is unlikely to figure in any of England's pre-Christmas internationals, Woodward acknowledged.
However, Tim Rodber, the England and Lions number eight, will come back into Test consideration provided he completes tomorrow's club game with Northampton without any reaction to a recent shoulder injury.