18 Nov 2015

Jonah Lomu - rugby's first global superstar

6:12 pm on 18 November 2015

Rugby's first global superstar former All Black Jonah Lomu has died at the age of 40.

Jonah Lomu

Jonah Lomu Photo: Photosport

Lomu had arrived back from Dubai yesterday and suddenly collapsed and died at home in Auckland early Wednesday morning.

He was diagnosed with Nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disease, in 1996.

He was rugby's first truly global superstar and his try at the 1995 World Cup when he quite literally ran over the top of England fullback heralded his coming on the world stage.

He had starred at the national sevens tournament in 1993 catching the eye of then All Blacks coach Laurie Mains.

"Earle Kirton (a selector) and I were watching the national sevens tournament and Jonah was playing and he was simply sensational. We looked at each other and said 'what can we do with this kid? This guy could be a phenomenon.'"

In 1994 Lomu made his test debut against France becoming the youngest All Black ever although it was an inauspicious start as his defence and positional play was found wanting,not surprising given he'd played much of his rugby as a loose foward.

But he learnt quickly and was part of Mains' 1995 World Cup squad with the All Blacks changing their game plan to suit Lomu.

"He was phenomenally fast...now on top of that he had a side step of roundabout three metres so if he had space he was basically impossible to mark so by 1995 we decided that we needed to change our tactics in the way we played rugby and we needed to be able to create space for Jonah Lomu," said Mains.

The first signs of his health problems emerged in 1996.

His kidney condition meant he missed most of the 1997 domestic season although he returned for the All Blacks end of year tour of Wales, England and Ireland.

He played at the 1999 Rugby World Cup and remained in the All Blacks squad up until 2002 despite his failing health, evenutally needing a kidney transplant in 2004.

In 2006 Lomu spoke of he how reinvigorated he felt after the transplant.

"Before I used to really, really struggle in games. A lot of people didn't see that part because they never knew about it but now with the transplant I've had I don't struggle at trainings as much I used to," he said.

Lomu was awaiting another kidney transplant when he died.

Wellington, Hurricanes and All Black teamates Tana Umaga (left) and Jonah Lomu.

Wellington, Hurricanes and All Black teamates Tana Umaga (left) and Jonah Lomu. Photo: Photograph

His good friend and All Blacks and Hurricanes teamate Tana Umaga said the last time he spoke to Lomu was just before the World Cup.

"We didn't speak a lot in terms of words but there was a lot of acknowledgements and head nods and things like that....there's never been (another) Jonah Lomu has there? Everyone's tried to manufacture one.

"Tried to forwards out into the backs and tried to put someone on the wing of the same size (Lomu was 1.96m tall and 120kgs) but there'll never be another Jonah Lomu.

Former All Blacks midfielder Alama Ieremia made his test debut in 1994 the same year as Lomu.

"He redefined what wing play was all about. Off the field he was a very gentle person and very genuine Islander. He had a tough upbringing but for me it's just his humour and humility that I will miss the most."

Jonah Lomu and Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell have a laugh taking a selfie at a Warriors game earlier this year.

Up for a laugh...Jonah Lomu and Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell enjoy taking a selfie at a Warriors game earlier this year. Photo: Photosport

The former All Blacks captain Graham Mourie coached Lomu at the Hurricanes and said he transcended the game.

"Jonah was more than a great All Black. In terms of the game of rugby he was an absolute icon...anywhere you go in the world Jonah was bigger than the game - not a lot of people you could say that about."

Steve Tew the chief executive of New Zealand Rugby believe Lomu was a major influence in the game becoming professional.

"His bursting on the international stage took the game to another level and was probably an important spark for the game to go fully professional because of what he did at the 95 world cup."

Former international opponents have paid tribue to Lomu too.

The former Australia captain Gregan says he was a great man and was struggling to come to terms with the loss after seeing him just a few weeks ago at the World Cup final.

Another former Wallaby Tim Horan says rugby has lost one the good guys and children still talk about Lomu today even though he hasn't played for the All Blacks for more than ten years.

Jonah Lomu is survived by his wife Nadene and two sons and will be remembered not only as an All Black legend but as someone who transformed the game globally.