All Blacks greats united to pay tribute to Jonah Lomu with a powerful haka on Monday as thousands of fans packed a memorial service at New Zealand rugby’s spiritual home, Eden Park.
A grim-faced Buck Shelford led more than 20 former internationals in a “Ka Mate” haka while the legendary winger’s casket was carried into a hearse.
Former teammates including Tana Umaga, Justin Marshall and John Kirwan joined the emotional tribute on the same turf that Lomu once dominated as a player.
“Jonah, you were a freak on the field and a gentle, caring giant off it,” former All Blacks coach John Hart said.
A Maori mourning chant echoed around the Auckland stadium as Lomu’s black casket was carried through the players’ tunnel, preceded by an honour guard of tattooed warriors.
Lomu’s wife Nadene and sons Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5, wearing black shirts with the winger’s number 11, followed with heads bowed.
Lomu died unexpectedly at his Auckland home this month aged just 40 from cardiac arrest related to the chronic kidney disease that cut short his playing career.
He was a beloved figure in New Zealand, even among those too young to have seen him in action, and the memorial ceremony was broadcast live by all major television stations.
Eden Park was a happy hunting ground for the player, who appeared in six Tests at the venue and won five of them.
Hart said there could be no better place for the big man’s send-off.
“We’ve chosen Eden Park because it’s the spiritual home of rugby and somewhere that Jonah loved so much,” he said.
World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset made the 18,000 kilometre trip from France to pay his respects to a man he said helped bring the sport into the professional era.
“He’s an icon in rugby and I have to represent all the fans that Jonah had in the world,” he said.
“This fantastic man delivered a very great message about rugby to the world… he terrified defences and thrilled spectators with a brand of running rugby that had never been seen before.”
Since Lomu’s death, tributes have poured in from across the rugby world, with many current players recalling how he inspired them to take up the game.
Such was his fame that condolences also came from beyond the sport, including the Queen, British footballer David Beckham, Hollywood star Morgan Freeman and singer Elton John.
Former Wallaby Tim Horan said no player in the sport had ever matched Lomu’s worldwide appeal.
“He put rugby on the map globally. He helped put rugby on the map in areas were people don’t normally watch it,” he said.
Lomu scored 37 tries in his 63 Tests for New Zealand, becoming rugby’s first global superstar with a combination of raw speed and brute strength.
But Prime Minister John Key said it was a bitter defeat that showed Lomu’s true character, recalling his sportsmanship when the All Blacks suffered a shock loss to France in the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup.
“Despite his deep disappointment, Jonah remained on the field until he’d shaken the hand of every single French player,” Key said in a video address from Paris where he is attending climate talks.
“More often than not, he was also the last player standing on the sideline signing autographs for young fans. That was Jonah.”
The memorial service will be followed by a private funeral on Tuesday.