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Ulster stalwart Shields: Legend Lomu had golden touch

By Jonathan Bradley

With over 100 caps for his province, Paul Shields was no stranger to turning out at Ravenhill but the day he swapped shirts with Jonah Lomu at the home of Ulster Rugby is one that lives long in the memory of the former stalwart.

It was back in 2001 that the legendary All Black winger, who died tragically from cardiac arrest late on Tuesday evening, pitched up in Belfast for New Zealand's contest with Ireland 'A' (right) and when all was said and done it was Shields left clutching the most prized of souvenirs.

Having met the man, and been so impressed with how the superstar carried himself, Shields was shocked by the news that he had passed just 40 years of age.

"I was genuinely very sad," said the man who is now team manager at the Northampton Saints.

"I suppose even more so because I'd met him and found out that exactly what everybody says about him was true.

"I just find it a great loss. You think about what he did for the World Cup and for the game…it's just very sad.

"He had time for everyone it seems. There's a kid over here in Northampton called Zack who has both leukaemia and a different type of cancer at the same time, we have a 'Back Zack' campaign, and it was only a few days ago that Jonah tweeted him directly to say 'keep going.'

"Jerry Collins (who died in a car crash in France in the summer) was there that night at Ravenhill as well, it really is tragic that we've lost two huge characters in the game in such a short space of time and both with such young families as well.

"They leave behind a massive footprint."

Given the tragic turn of events, Shields says he is more grateful than ever to be in possession of the one-of-a-kind keepsake.

"It was my first involvement for any Ireland team at senior level so there was huge excitement anyway but then you look at their team and Jonah Lomu is on the bench," recalled the 37-year-old who went on to win two senior international caps.

"It was Paul O'Connell's and Richie McCaw's first time in the international set-ups as well…a few different career paths shall we say.

"The occasion was fantastic and the aura of facing the haka at Ravenhill was something else.

"Paddy Wallace had a cracking game I remember but we ended up losing and afterwards we all went in to get a jersey.

"Shane Byrne, who was our starting hooker, led the charge into their dressing room and made a beeline for his opposite number, Tom Willis, but he didn't fancy swapping. He then went for their sub hooker Anton Oliver, one of the great All Black hookers, so I was left without anyone to swap with.

"It was just a case of asking the first person who walked by and it happened to be Jonah.

"I just said to him 'mate, can we swap shirts' and straight away he replied 'I'd love to.'

"He couldn't have been a nicer fella, just a 100% genuine guy.

"I stood and spoke to him for a couple of minutes and there was no ego there at all.

"I put the jersey on right away, it drowned me, and stuck my Ireland tracksuit over the top just in case anyone tried to nab it. We'd been well beaten that night but I couldn't stop smiling.

"I've got the programme framed and the jersey still has pride of place at home…friends of my kids are always asking to try it on!

"I'm so thankful that I have it. It's something I'll cherish even more now that the great man is no longer with us."

It had been six years before that night in Belfast when Lomu had announced himself on the world stage at the 1995 World Cup, a tournament where he scored his first international tries in the pool game against Ireland.

Ulsterman and former Ireland captain Paddy Johns (above) was the number 8 that day and remembers well a performance that caused his provincial teammate and back-row colleague Denis McBride to say that Lomu couldn't be stopped with anything other than a baseball bat.

"6'5'' and the guts of 20 stones, he wasn't an easy man to stop," Johns laughed.

"We had taken the lead after half an hour, I don't think he touched the ball much in those 30 minutes, but after that it was pretty much the Jonah show.

"When he got the ball he just went through us with ease, and it wasn't for a lack of trying.

"People were just bouncing off him. I remember after that game, because he was still under the radar at that time, people saying that our defence should be ashamed of their tackling

"It was only when he went on, and did what he did against England, that people realised what we had been up against. The Lomu Factor."

For Johns, it was a disappointment that Lomu did not go on to lift the trophy after New Zealand came up against a Nelson Mandela inspired South Africa in the final.

"He absolutely ripped England apart; we're still always seeing those clips even now.

"I don't know what happened in the final.

"I know James Small got up quick on him, and then there was all that talk about them having dickey tummies, but he was awesome.

"A freak of nature is the only way to describe him. His size, his speed, his stride, not many people had much of a chance.

"It's so sad he's gone so soon. It just shows that you never know what's around the corner I suppose.

"It's a tragic loss for the sport. He was one of a kind."

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