It says everything about the impact made by Jonah Lomu that the sporting world, not just that of rugby union, mourned the death at 40 of the former New Zealand wing, who battled with a kidney disease for most of his 15-year career.
Lomu died at his home in Auckland from a cardiac arrest 24 hours after returning home from Dubai, where he had taken a family holiday having been one of New Zealand’s World Cup ambassadors in England. The player who took the 1995 World Cup by storm as a 20-year-old generated tributes from across the globe.
“So sad to hear the news about this amazing giant of a man,” said the former England football captain, David Beckham, “a sporting hero and one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet. A credit to his country, his family and to the sport that he passionately played. Jonah, you will be missed.”
The Australia Test cricketer Usman Khawaja tweeted: “Extremely sad news about Jonah Lomu. He was the only reason I watched rugby union as a kid. What a legacy he has left.”
A number of rugby league clubs in Australia posted tributes to Lomu, including Manly Sea Eagles. “Our thoughts and prayers to the family of the late Jonah Lomu. What an amazing athlete. Rest in peace.”
In rugby union, players spoke about a sportsman who redefined the sport but who did not sacrifice his humility to fame. “I think it amazed people how humble and quiet he was when they got to see the real Jonah because on the field he was such a force of nature,” said the former New Zealand fly-half Andrew Mehrtens.
“He was rugby’s first global superstar: people started talking about Jonah Lomu probably at least as much as they were talking about the All Blacks. I remember going for a McDonald’s – everyone would be open-mouthed, people would stare at him goggle-eyed. I’d be sitting alongside pinching myself, thinking I’m beside Mick Jagger or something!”
The former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick said: “He was iconic and a gentleman. He was an absolute legend of the game, its first global superstar. He set the world alight at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, more than 19st, 6ft 5in who could run the 100 metres in 10.5sec. Defences had not seen anything like him before.”
The England side of 20 years ago would say amen to that. Lomu scored the first of his four tries against them in the semi-final at Cape Town by using Mike Catt as a door mat without lingering over wiping his feet. “I still blame Will Carling,” said Catt. “He ankle-tapped him and Jonah is then stumbling towards me, rather than standing upright. Like you do in your under-10 days you get your feet close and you drive your attacker. Unfortunately, the next thing I remember is turning around to see Jonah scoring the try. I’m lying on the floor and Robin Brooke came over to me, hit me across the cheek and said: ‘Mate, that’s just the start of it.’ Everybody knew who Mike Catt was afterwards, but for all the wrong reasons.”
The Northampton centre George Pisi made his debut as a 20-year-old for North Harbour when Lomu was at the province. “Jonah was just the humblest guy and he really took the young guys under his wing,” he said. “Maybe he wasn’t at his peak then and he was coming back from his sickness but he was still the down-to-earth guy that everyone respected.”
New Zealand lost the 1995 World Cup final to South Africa in extra time after the Springboks stopped Lomu gaining momentum. “Difficult to write with eyes full of tears on my eye tracker,” tweeted their scrum-half that day, Joost van der Westhuizen, who has motor neurone disease. “Thank you for EVERYTHING Jonah. RIP my dear friend.”
Cardiff Blues will hold a minute’s applause in tribute to Lomu, their former player, at Thursday’s European Challenge Cup home tie with Harlequins.
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