Lomu's Commonwealth triumph
September 21, 2010
Twelve years ago this month, New Zealand were basking in the glory of having become the winners of the inaugural Rugby Sevens event at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia. After easing past Wales in the last eight, the Kiwis reached the final by edging out Samoa 19-14 in the semis. They met world champions Fiji in the tournament decider before a crowd 20,000 fans at the Petaling Jaya Stadium. It was a fiercely competitive encounter but New Zealand claimed gold courtesy of a hard-fought 21-12 victory, Jonah Lomu picking up the man of the match award after a scintillating display.
Jonah Lomu (back row, first from left)
Lomu was just 23 at the time of New Zealand's Commonwealth Games success but he was already a household name the world over following his stunning performances on the wing for the All Blacks at the the 1995 World Cup. Standing 6'4'' and weighing in at just under 19 stone, Lomu was memorably referred to as "a freak" by former England captain Will Carling on account of his remarkable combination of pace and power. It was no surprise that he quickly became the poster boy for the professional game and he was the main draw in Malaysia. He shone throughout the tournament but saved his best for last, turning in a fine display in the final. Lomu starred again for the All Blacks in the 1999 World Cup but a chronic kidney illness eventually began to take its toll on him and in 2004 he was forced to undergo a kidney transplant. Lomu attempted a succession of comebacks but he was never to recapture the form which made him a global superstar. However, his legendary status within the game has long since been cemented.
Rico Gear (back row, first from right)
Gear travelled to Kuala Lumpur as a fresh-faced 20-year-old who had yet to make a single appearance in the then Super 12. His inclusion in Gordon Tietjens' squad for the Commonwealth Games was arguably the making of him. The following year he made his Super Rugby bow with Auckland and, after spending a few seasons learning his trade, he was handed his All Blacks debut in 2004. The next three years were to be the most fruitful of Gear's career, with the incredibly quick winger notching 11 tries in just 19 appearances for his country. During that period he also helped the Crusaders to back-to-back Super 12 titles, in 2005 and 2006 before leaving his homeland to join Worcester Warriors in England after being omitted from the All Blacks squad for the 2007 World Cup in France. Following the Warriors' relegation from the top flight in 2010, Gear joined Japan's Kintetsu Liners, for whom he still plays.
Christian Cullen (front row, fourth from left)
Like Lomu, Cullen arrived in Malaysia as a bona-fide rugby superstar. He was just 22 but had already established himself as the finest fullback in the game after scoring a staggering seven tries in his first two appearances for the All Blacks, against Samoa and Scotland, two years previously. After playing an integral role in New Zealand's triumph in the Commonwealth Games, Cullen continued to shine in the 15-man game but although he featured in all of the All Blacks' games at the 1999 World Cup, he did not enjoy the tournament as he was played out of position in midfield. Restored to fullback the following season, Cullen again excelled and he went on to break New Zealand's all-time try-scoring record, notching 46 times for his country in 58 Tests (his tally has since been surpassed by Doug Howlett) before leaving to link up with Munster in 2003. His time in Ireland was blighted by injury, though, and he retired from the game in the summer of 2007. However, he is still regarded by many as the finest fullback union has ever produced.
Eric Rush (front row, second from left)
The captain of the side, Eric Rush was already known as one of the finest exponents of Sevens rugby when he and his colleagues touched down in Malaysia. Rush was 33 at the time but still at the peak of his powers, as he demonstrated in the tournament. He had been a flanker in his youth but was switched to the wing in 1992, at the age of 27, at the behest of North Harbour coach Peter Thorburn. It was a shrewd move and Rush excelled out wide. He made his All Blacks debut three years later and eventually earned nine caps for his country. Coincidentally, the emergence of Lomu effectively ended his fledgling international career. In the shortened version of the game, though, Rush became a legend. After Malaysia, he became a full-time Sevens player in 1999 with the advent of the IRB Sevens World Series and he went on to inspire New Zealand to further wins in the 2001 World Cup (despite breaking his leg during the tournament) and the 2002 Commonwealth Games. A qualified lawyer, he eventually retired in 2004 at the age of 39. He remains a very popular figure within New Zealand rugby and is a respected after-dinner speaker.
Joeli Vidiri (back row, three from left)
When fully fit and on form, Vidiri was one of the most exciting backs in the game. However, just like his fellow wing and one-time Counties Manukau and Blues team-mate Lomu, his career suffered as a consequence of a rare kidney disorder. At the time of the Commonwealth Games, though, Vidiri was 24 and in rude health. He had already established himself in the 15-man game and Sevens with his native Fiji when he arrived in New Zealand in 1994. Vidiri went on to make 71 provincial appearances for Counties, scoring an impressive 56 tries. He proved just as prolific for the Blues, notching 43 times in 61 games. Vidiri's international career never really took off, though. He featured just twice for the All Blacks, coming on as a replacement for Lomu against England before starting against the Wallabies in 1998. Vidiri continued to shine for the Blues thereafter but his kidney condition worsened and he was eventually forced to retire in 2001 after two matches with Auckland in the NPC.