Jonah Lomu: True great, gone too soon

Jonah Lomu: True great, gone too soon

The rugby world is in mourning after the death of Jonah Lomu.

He wasn't just one of our most famous All Blacks, but one of the best known and most-loved rugby players of all time, credited with changing the game forever.

He'll be remembered best for a try he scored in the 1995 Rugby World Cup when he trampled all over England's Mike Catt. It was an effort that's been voted the best try in Rugby World Cup history.

When Lomu strode out into the opening ceremony of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he took his place as a New Zealand rugby icon. Now the big man of rugby is gone.

Lomu was a tower of Tongan power and young Lomu didn't even like rugby when he played for his school, Wesley College.

But everyone else could see the potential. He was fast-tracked into the under 16s and New Zealand school sides.

That led to a spot in the national Sevens side, which won the 1994 title in Hong Kong. The All Blacks were watching, and at 19 years and 45 days, Lomu became the youngest-ever All Black.

A star already at home, it was the 1995 World Cup that made Lomu an international sensation, running over England's Catt and scoring four tries in one World Cup game – perhaps his greatest rugby performance.

For Lomu it was a record-breaking World Cup – 15 tries, a record he still holds.

But unknown to fans, Lomu was already suffering the early stages of the disease he battled with most of his life. Outwardly though, there was no stopping the Jonah Juggernaut.

Reebok signed him, and he also married his first wife, South African Tanya Rutter.

On the field Lomu continued in the All Blacks – part of the '96 'Bok-beating side.

In 1997 came the revelation that Lomu was battling the kidney disease nephrotic syndrome, his career was put on hold for six months. A year later he and wife Tanya separated.

By 1999 Lomu was back and in great form for the World Cup, where he scored twice in that infamous French semi-final when the All Blacks were beaten.

Lomu came home and moved to Wellington, where his new girlfriend, Teina Stace, attracted headlines for a car crash.

His global star was still shining. Adidas featured him alongside women's tennis champion Martina Hingus.

But the health problems continued, forcing another break from rugby. There was no break in the love life, with a secret wedding on Waiheke Island to Fiona Taylor annoying Lomu's family.

Lomu battled on, but in 2003 announced he needed a kidney transplant and entertainer Grant Kereama would be the donor.

The operation was successful and Lomu started his comeback at a testimonial match for England captain Martin Johnson.

The plan was to play again for the All Blacks at the 2007 World Cup, but after stints in Wales and North Harbour, the comeback never came.

Lomu was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He also took up bodybuilding, and played for a French third-division side.

After splitting from Fiona, he married property manager Nadene Quirk and became an international ambassador for Adidas.

In 2011 he was due to fight in the Fight for Life charity boxing event, but had to pull out when his transplanted kidney failed.

For Lomu it was a return to dialysis while he waited for a replacement – a replacement that he ran out of time for.

Lomu's death has sparked an outpouring of grief from those who knew him, as well as those who felt they knew him.

It was to be the last time All Black great Lomu would ever do the haka – in front of hundreds of fans ahead of the Rugby World Cup. The game of rugby was in his blood up until the end.

"It was totally unexpected," says family spokesman John Mayhew. "Jonah and his family arrived back from the United Kingdom last night and he suddenly died this morning."

Lomu was there doing promotional work for Heineken. Thirteen years after retiring from the sport, he still had global reach.

"This is what my life is like when I leave New Zealand, and it's been like that for the past 20 years," said Lomu. "My sons can't get over the reaction of people when I'm around."

Today at his Auckland home, family and friends are struggling to comprehend a life cut short, after a 20-year battle with kidney disease.

Lomu's wife told 3 News in a statement of her devastating loss, and asked for privacy for her and their two young sons.

"It's obviously a very difficult time for Jonah's family," says Mayhew. "He's a great rugby player and a great person. It's a terrible tragedy."

It's a tragedy shared by those who guided him to greatness on the rugby field when he steamrolled England into submission during the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final, becoming the first true global superstar of the game.

"He was just something that this world had never seen," says former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains. "He leaves other legacies to the game. He's one of those individuals that always had time for anybody at all in the game of rugby. He would speak to any of the kids. He was just a lovely gentleman."

"I think it's fair to say his bursting onto the international stage was the spark for getting the game to go fully professional because what he did for the '95 RWC turned some heads," says NZRU's Steve Tew.

The commentator from the time says Lomu was a game-changer.

"The way he played that role so superbly and with such power and with the ability to score tries and shake the earth and rugby world, will be his legacy now," says Keith Quinn.

On the field, the fear he instilled in opponents was mirrored by the calm he brought to those on his side.

"It gave you just a sense of comfort on your team that you know what, we've got this guy, Jonah Lomu – good luck to the rest of you," says former All Black Justin Marshall.

It seemed nothing could ever stop him.

"To be blunt, I'm absolutely shocked because in the entire dinner I had with him he said to me actually from a health perspective he was feeling better than he had for a very long time," says Prime Minister John Key.

He was a true great of the game, gone too soon.

3 News

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz