The sudden death of All Blacks great Jonah Lomu, the player widely regarded as rugby’s first superstar, has been met with shock and sadness.
The 63-Test All Black, who had battled kidney disorders for two decades, died at his Auckland home on Wednesday of complications related to the disease. He was 40.
NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said it was “an incredibly sad day” for rugby and for the All Blacks.
“We’re lost for words and our heartfelt sympathies go out to Jonah’s family,” he said.
“Jonah was a legend of our game and loved by his many fans, both here and around the world.”
Like others who witnessed it, Tew hasn’t forgotten Lomu’s explosive performance in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final against England, when the giant winger, then just 20, showed his unstoppable pace and power by running in four tries.
“Anybody of my generation will remember the World Cup game where he ran over a couple of guys in white shirts,” he said.
“A larger-than-life person, he was certainly a magnet for a lot of attention. He was the first big star of the game, certainly from our neck of the woods.”
Lomu’s wife Nadene, in a brief statement, spoke about the family’s devastating loss and asked for privacy, particularly for the couple’s two children, Brayley and Dhyreille.
“It is with great sadness that I must announce my dear husband Jonah Lomu died last night,” she said.
“As you can imagine, this is a devastating loss for our family and may I ask that our privacy, especially the privacy of our two very young boys, be respected as we take them through this traumatic time.”
Former All Blacks doctor John Mayhew said Lomu’s death was unexpected.
“Jonah and his family arrived back from the United Kingdom last night and he suddenly died this morning,” he said.
Lomu had been in Britain for promotional work around the Rugby World Cup.
Prime Minister John Key, who is at the APEC summit in Manila, said he was “absolutely shocked” at the news of Lomu’s death and parliament had expressed its sadness and condolences.
People were seen arriving at Lomu’s house to pay their respects.
The youngest-selected All Black, Lomu went on to score 37 tries in 63 Tests.
His spectacular performances at the 1995 World Cup made him one of the sport’s most-recognisable global figures and his semi-final trampling of England fullback Mike Catt remains an indelible image.
His performances in South Africa are said to have triggered the birth of professional rugby in 1996, with media moguls admiring the speed and power which contrasted with his gentle off-field demeanour.
The joint record-holder for the most World Cup tries (15) with South African Bryan Habana, Lomu was recently named the tournament’s greatest player in an English-run poll.
Born in Auckland to Tongan parents, he outlined a difficult upbringing in his autobiography.
He detailed a strained relationship with his father Semisi, and admitted to falling in with the wrong crowd of friends on the streets of south Auckland.
After starring as a schoolboy No.8, Lomu rose to prominence with a powerhouse display at the 1994 Hong Kong sevens tournament.
He made his All Blacks debut in 1994, on the left wing against France in Christchurch, aged 19 years 45 days.
After a shaky start, he soon established himself as a potent match-winner, with his combination of size and acceleration too much for most opponents to handle.
Forty-three tries in 73 All Blacks games earned him a following overseas which sometimes superseded the recognition of his deeds in New Zealand.
Lomu’s last Test was in late 2002 and the former Blues, Hurricanes and Chiefs Super Rugby winger underwent a kidney transplant in 2004. He attempted a short-lived comeback a year later.
Lomu was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2011.