The rugby world is united in grief following the death at just 40 of Jonah Lomu – the man who arguably made the biggest impact on the sport in its history.
The legendary All Black passed away in his home city of Auckland on Tuesday after a long battle with a rare kidney condition. He will be remembered as rugby union’s first and biggest superstar of the sport’s professional era, which began in 1995 – the same year in which he exploded on to the scene at the World Cup in South Africa as a barnstorming 6ft 5in, 18-and-a-half stone winger with a fearsome and unprecedented combination of pace and power.
Lomu scored 37 tries in 63 Test matches for the All Blacks but had suffered from health problems since his retirement from the game in 2002 due to the kidney disease.
The news still came as a shock, however, as Lomu had been a visible presence during the recent Rugby World Cup in England, which was won by New Zealand, and he appeared to be well. Former All Blacks doctor John Mayhew, who also acted as a personal doctor to Lomu, insisted his former patient was in “pretty good shape” prior to his death.
Mayhew told New Zealand TV yesterday: “Jonah has been in pretty good shape, he arrived back from Dubai [on Monday] and unfortunately suddenly collapsed and died at home this [Tuesday] morning.
“He has been a fantastic person and a great friend, I have been his doctor for a long time. It’s staggering, a very sad day. He’s such a warm person, he was so good to so many people, he had no ego.”
Lomu not only changed individual games with his physicality and his brilliance, perhaps most famously the 1995 World Cup semi-final in which he single-handedly destroyed England with four tries, but in a wider sense changed the game as a whole.
Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward said: “He took rugby to a whole new level. There’s very rarely one player who dominates a whole World Cup and he certainly did.
“He was unstoppable. For the first time ever you had this incredibly gifted, large, very fast athlete on the wing. Wingers are usually small and nimble.
Suddenly you had this huge guy who was big and fast and amazing. He changed rugby.”
In late 1996 Lomu was diagnosed with a complex and rare kidney disorder called nephrotic syndrome, which forced him to take time out of the game in 1997. But he returned and played in the 1999 World Cup, where he scored eight tries including one in the quarter-final against Scotland at Murrayfield. Lomu touched down six times in six Tests against the Scots during his career and also scored four tries in a virtuoso display for the Barbarians in 2001.
Former Scotland stand-off Gregor Townsend, who is now coach of Glasgow Warriors, said on Twitter: “Tragic news. We have lost one of the best ever to play our game. A great player and a great man. Gone too soon. RIP Jonah Lomu.”
Townsend’s former Scotland team-mate Kenny Logan tweeted: “Jonah Lomu was a legend, blazed a trail, took the sport into a different era with his global recognition. Talent and humility in abundance.”
Former England full-back Mike Catt, who was famously trampled over by Lomu during that 1995 World Cup semi-final, told englandrugby.com: “I’m massively sad but the legacy he’s left is incredible. He’s inspired millions of people around the world to watch the sport and start playing. He changed rugby union during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.”
We’ve lost one of the best ever to play our game. A great player and a great manGregor Townsend
Fellow All Blacks legend Zinzan Brooke paid tribute to his friend and former team-mate. “It’s amazing what he did in that 1995 World Cup. He launched himself on the international scene and changed the way the game was played in an instant,” he said. “When you think of the World Cup you will always go back to Jonah running round or over opponents. You’ll always remember the superstar that was Jonah Lomu.
“I’m still in shock now realising a great friend has gone.”