The entire sporting world is reeling in shock after learning about the sudden and untimely death of former All Blacks rugby legend, Jonah Lomu, a pioneering global superstar, whose speed and power bamboozled opponents during
his astonishing but somewhat abbreviated career.
The giant wing died unexpectedly yesterday, aged 40, after losing a long battle with kidney disease, prompting an outpouring of tributes for “a legend of the game”.
Lomu had for decades struggled with the kidney illness that cut short his blossoming playing career, but close acquaintances said his sudden death still came as a shock. He passed away at his Auckland home shortly after returning from a trip to Britain.
Lomu played 63 Tests and scored 37 tries for New Zealand, rising to stardom at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. At his peak the 1.96-metre tall Lomu weighed 120 kilograms) and could cover 100-metres in 10.8 seconds.
He combined the speed of a backline player with the power of a forward, creating a new template for wingers and attracting a global audience for the newly professional sport of rugby union.
In real life, Lomuh captured the admiration of many rugby followers, notably among the black community since he was one of a few players of colour in a sport that was predominantly white.
He followed in the footsteps of ex-All Blacks eight-man Brian Williams, a descendent from New Zealand’s indigenous Maori tribe. Williams toured South West Africa, now Namibia, in the early 70’s.
Williams’ presence in the All Blacks traveling entourage almost caused a furore as the notorious South African apartheid regime did not take kindly to his involvement in the sacred oval ball game, previously reserved strictly for white folk. National Party rulers also would not allow him to share the same facilities as his pale-skinned teammates – let alone his opponents.
Many blacks took his plight to heart and vowed to rally behind the All Blacks, mainly because of Williams’ presence in the squad. That association and affection towards the All Blacks remained intact, as can be attested by the vast support New Zealand’s rugby team still enjoys among non-white rugby fans in both South Africa and Namibia.
Athletes of the caliber of Williams, Lomu, George Gregan and Tana Umaga inspired many marginalised people through outstanding performances in a sporting discipline exclusively tailored to cater for a certain race.
Shortly after announcing his arrival in rugby at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Lomu was diagnosed that same year with a rare kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome, which eventually forced him out of the international scene in 2002 at the age of 27.
Yet his spell at the top had such an impact that he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011. The global body’s chairman Bernard Lapasset said in 2013 that Lomu revolutionised the sport at a crucial time when it was turning professional.
“He was rugby’s first professional star at a time when the sport needed media coverage and recognition from sponsors,” he said. “The conjunction of the way rugby was going pro and the way Jonah Lomu exploded on the scene was perfect for the game’s future.”
Former Namibian rugby coach Walter Don expressed shock and dismay at the sudden departure of the global rugby legend. “It’s not only the southern hemisphere that has been affected by his death, but the entire world has lost a great rugby personality. Lomu was a mentor, as he inspired many young black kids to play rugby, since he identified with our community.
“His strength pulled him through trying times, even when he was diagnosed with the rare kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome. He was doubtlessly a pillar of strength and showed unbelievable passion for rugby. So we should embrace his contribution and appreciate his willpower,” said a teary Don.
“Lomu’s passing leaves not just a big hole in rugby, but in world sport,” former Wallaby Tim Horan said. Lomu remained one of the world’s most recognised and adored rugby players, even 13 years after his last Test.
“He was one of those rare superstar players that transcended rugby,” South Africa, New Zealand and Australia rugby boss Brendan Morris said.
Before his death, Lomu was in Britain for promotional work linked to the recently completed World Cup, won by his beloved All Blacks. In public appearances he looked healthy, joking with fans and leading a rousing rendition of the haka in London’s Covent Garden.
“He looked the best I’ve seen him in many years/ He just had that sparkle and that look of life in his face… I’m totally shocked,” Australian great George Gregan said. Lomu is survived by his spouse Nadene and two sons Brayley and Dhyreille.