- By James Nadel
One of the world’s finest rugby union players, largely credited with developing the modern game and making rugby union popular with the masses, favourite son of New Zealand, Jonah Lomu, died unexpectedly overnight at the age of 40.
He had arrived back in Auckland from overseas on Tuesday.
The former All Blacks winger, whose imposing, 18 stone, 6 foot 5, physique and often brutal running game, capable of running, ball in hand, 100 meters in under 11 seconds, provoked in opponents equal amounts of admiration and fear, had suffered from health problems since calling time on his playing career in 2002 due to a rare kidney disease, nephrotic syndrome. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2004 and had been on dialysis treatment for the past 10 years.
Details of the exact cause of his death remain unclear.
“The family are obviously devastated, as are friends and acquaintances,” John Mayhew, the former All Blacks doctor, said. “The family have requested privacy at this stage, they are obviously going through a terrible time. It was totally unexpected.”
Lomu had been at the recent Rugby World Cup in the UK where he had undertaken some promotional work for a tournament sponsor. He and his family holidayed in Dubai on their way back to New Zealand.
“We’re all shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden death of Jonah Lomu,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said. “Jonah was a legend of our game and loved by his many fans both here and around the world. We’re lost for words and our heartfelt sympathies go out to Jonah’s family.”
Lomu, who was born in Auckland but spent his early years in Tonga, was not just one of the best sportsmen New Zealand has produced. The gentle giant’s tough upbringing in South Auckland nearly led him down a different path, but his determination to eschew a life of street violence made him a role model and inspiration to many young boys and girls of Pacific Island heritage who faced similar challenges at an early age.
In 2011 he travelled back to Tonga to promote the game before the Rugby World Cup. Tonga’s sports minister Fe’ao Vakata said of his impact there: “Certainly if other countries were proud of Jonah Lomu, then firstly Tonga would be much prouder.”
He had also been an ambassador for Unicef New Zealand since 2011, and a patron of the charity Kidney Kids NZ.
Reaction to his sudden death was overwhelming. New Zealand’s prime minister John Key was among those to express his condolences. “Deeply saddened to hear of Jonah Lomu’s unexpected passing this morning. The thoughts of the entire country are with his family,” he said.
Sir Graham Henry, who guided the All Blacks to World Cup success in 2011, said: “It’s just so sad, I saw him at the World Cup and he looked so well. It’s just a hell of a shock.”
Lomu played in 63 Tests for New Zealand after making his debut in 1994. He scored 37 tries, 15 during World Cup games, including one that arguably defined his career, a bullocking rampage through, not past, several England players at the 1995 World Cup. His effort was this year voted the greatest in World Cup history. Lomu remains joint top World Cup try scorer in history, a benchmark equalled by South Africa’s Bryan Habana at this year’s tournament.
That edition of the World Cup propelled him into the international spotlight and his match-winning performances on the pitch in South Africa and humility off it were widely credited with bringing about the advent of the game’s professionalism a year later.
Lomu made his All Blacks debut at the age of 19 years and 45 days, against France in Christchurch in 1994, breaking a record that had stood for 90 years to become New Zealand’s youngest Test player.
He was taken to the World Cup a year later as something of a wildcard pick by coach Laurie Mains, a decision he would not regret.
Lomu scored seven tries in total, four during that semi-final win over England, as the All Blacks reached the final, where they eventually succumbed to the host nation. Lomu remarkably never enjoyed winning the World Cup personally despite setting the trend and many records in modern rugby union.
Lomu’s rise to international prominence in South Africa not only made him a star of the game, but also helped take rugby union to a global audience it had previously been unable to reach.
“What it meant for rugby, that World Cup changed everything,” Lomu told the Guardian in August. “When I look at it now I understand my impact more. When they show clips of me on the TV, my sons turn and look at me.”
“They have grown up as the sons of Jonah and it’s a daunting task trying to explain to them what I achieved. I don’t have any regrets. Everything that I achieved in rugby I cherished. I was in a World Cup final in South Africa against South Africa when a country became one. As Francois Pienaar [the Springboks captain] said: ‘It was not 80,000 in the stadium, it was 44 million.’”
Everybody who ever met Lomu only ever has great things to say about him on both a professional and personal level, he was not known as the gentle giant undeservedly.