Rugby

All Black giant Jonah Lomu dies aged 40

Jonah Lomu scored 37 tries during his New Zealand international career.
Jonah Lomu scored 37 tries during his New Zealand international career. Reuters/Dylan Martinez/Files

Jonah Lomu was awaiting a kidney transplant when he died suddenly on Wednesday in Auckland. He had battled a serious condition since 1996. Though he played on through the pain, he retired from international rugby in 2002, eight years after bursting onto the scene as the youngest All Black for 90 years. 

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Tributes flooded in on Wednesday for the former New Zealand international who died at the age of 40.

He was remembered for feats on the All Blacks wing such as his four tries against England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final, the way that he muscularly barged aside opposing defenders and the gentle manner in which he embraced them and many others afterwards.

World Rugby president Bernard Lapasset said Lomu had changed the face of the sport before he was forced to retire due to a serious kidney disorder.

"He was ahead of his time," Lapasset told the French news agency AFP. "Jonah Lomu gave an incredible new dimension to the game. He gave an incredible impetus with his driving runs."

Standing 1.96 metres tall and weighing 120 kilograms, he was a marauding force of nature who could travel 100 metres in 10.8 seconds.

He announced his presence at the Hong Kong Sevens tournament in 1994. He was soon called up by the full All Blacks side.

He made his debut at the age of 19 years and 45 days, against France in Christchurch in 1994, breaking a 90-year-old record to become New Zealand’s youngest Test player.

He went on to score 37 tries in 63 matches before retiring in 2002 due to the illness that had been diagnosed in 1996 but kept secret.

The homages to the man and his legacy were posted on social media. New Zealand's World Cup winning fly-half Dan Carter sent his love and thoughts to Lomu's family while Wales skipper Sam Warburton said Lomu was the reason why he wanted to become a rugby player.

Steve Tew, chief executive of the New Zealand rugby union, said Lomu's death was a sad day for the All Blacks.

"We should reflect on the amazing contribution Jonah made," said Tew. "I think it's fair to say that when he burst onto the international stage it took the game to another level. It was probably an important spark for the game to become truly professsional because what he did at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa certainly turned some heads."

Though New Zealand were ultimately undone by a Nelson Mandela inspired South Africa team in the final, Lomu was anointed the star of the tournament.

In the semi-final against England, Mike Catt was one of several players who forlornly grappled with Lomu before being peeled off or unceremoniously dislodged during another barnstorming run. "I'm massively sad. The legacy he's left is incredible," he said.

Will Carling, the England captain in the drubbing, described Lomu as unstoppable.

Even after illness forced him to give up playing, Lomu launched into charity work and the campaign to make rugby sevens an Olympic sport.

As part of that drive, he addressed an International Olympic Committee meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.

"He spoke before more than 700 people, very naturally, with his faith and conviction," said Lapasset. "There was an almost religious silence and he recalled how sevens rugby had enabled him to escape a difficult life in his youth in Auckland."

In an interview before the 2015 tournament - eventually won by his heirs in the All Blacks - Lomu, matter of factly told one journalist that he'd still back himself in the modern game. "Things have changed in certain ways ... but it's still mass versus speed. I had a fair bit of speed and a fair bit of mass."

Lomu, who is survived by his wife, Nadene, and two sons. said he wanted his children to remember him for getting rugby into the Olympics more than his All Blacks career, according to the World Rugby president.

Rugby will be played at the Rio Olympics in nine months without one of its greatest advocates in attendance.

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