JONAH LOMU: Death of an icon, a Kiwi's perspective

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It’s hard to describe just how Kiwis feel after the death of Jonah Lomu.

Reaction to his tragically young death at the age of 40 has been overwhelming.

To the rest of the rugby world, Jonah was a legend. Idolised as a great of the game who was rugby’s first global superstar who put the sport on the map, just as rugby was looking for someone to launch the new professional age.

But to Kiwis he is all that and more.

If rugby is a passion for the majority of New Zealanders, then the All Blacks an obsession. As a guide, New Zealand has roughly 28 professional or mostly professional domestic sport teams – and 19 of them play rugby.

Being an All Black is akin to being granted celebrity status by the majority of New Zealanders. But the respect for Jonah bordered on reverence.

Kiwis love their stars making it big on the world stage – but as a people, we then don’t like it when those same stars seem to be enjoying their status too much.

But Jonah was never in danger of letting it get to his head. He was religious, and that faith instilled strong family values and a humbleness that is rarely seen by top athletes.

[JONAH LOMU'S LIFE IN PICTURES]

[STUDENTS PERFORM HAKA FOR FORMER PUPIL LOMU]

['HE SINCERELY FOUND IT HILARIOUS THAT NORMAL-SIZED HUMANS WOULD TRY TO TACKLE HIM]

He was a gentle giant from the wrong side of the tracks who made an indelible impression on all manner of New Zealanders from all walks of life.

Born in Auckland, he moved to Tonga, before growing up in the working class south Auckland suburb of Mangere. His uncle, a mobster, was hacked to death with a machete, his cousin was killed in the same attack.

His determination to avoid a similar fate made him a role and inspiration to many boys and girls of Pacific Island and Maori heritage who often faced similar challenges at a young age.

Then, at the age of 22, he was diagnosed with a crippling and rare kidney condition for which there is no cure.

He had a kidney transplant in 2004 which effectively ended his career, but his body rejected that new kidney in 2011. He’d been living off dialysis ever since.

In the mid-1990s Lomu was the first of a new breed. Almost as tall as lock, as heavy as a prop and with the ability to run 100m in less than 10 seconds – he was always likely to revolutionize the game.

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There are now many like him - Julian Savea is often held up as Lomu version 2.0. And in some ways Savea is probably a better player than Jonah, but Lomu was the first. He was the trailblazer.

That's why losing him will be felt so keenly around the country.

[LOMU: 'A FREAK, A NIGHTMARE AND THE NICEST, NICEST POSSIBLE GUY']

[CRUSHED BY LOMU, ENGLAND UNITED IN GRIEF FOR HIS DEATH]

New Zealand has been unfortunate in losing several great All Blacks reasonably recently - Sir Wilson Whineray, Sir Fred Allen, 'Tiny' White, Bob Scott, Kevin Skinner, Jock Hobbs - they were all titans of their time. I was even taught about many of them at school.

While I know Whineray, Meads and Scott et al were greats, but all I have is the word of my grandfather or father and some clips of grainy black and white footage from an era long ago.

But it's different to lose a player like Jonah - the only comparable loss can be that of Jerry Collins in June - and not just because he was taken so tragically young.

Jonah was my first rugby hero - I was six when he burst on to the scene at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and my formative rugby years were spent watching the All Blacks team of the 1990s and 2000s.

The memories I have of Jonah are my own. They are based on what I saw, what I heard and what I felt - therefore my opinion of him is based on my own experiences and not someone else's. I don't need someone else to tell me about how good he was, because chances are I saw it too.

That's what makes the loss feel that much keener.

We assess the considerable impact made by legendary All Black Jonah Lomu, who died on Wednesday at the age of 40.
We assess the considerable impact made by legendary All Black Jonah Lomu, who died on Wednesday at the age of 40.

There were some great players in that era - Zinzan Brooke, Andrew Mehrtens, Sean Fitzpatrick, Christian Cullen, Jeff WIlson, Tana Umaga - the list goes on. But Lomu was always no.1 for many Kiwi kids.

The likes of Cullen, Wilson and Umaga in particular had 'X-Factor', but Lomu had something else - something better and bigger than that. That he was doing with that kidney disease makes it all the more remarkable.

I was at Eden Park when Lomu was attempting a comeback with provincial side North Harbour after his kidney transplant in 2006. I'll always remember the moment when Jonah was substituted in the second half to a standing ovation.

There were the four tries in the Rugby World Cup semi final against England. There was the last-minute match-winning try in front of 110,000 fans in Sydney which the All Blacks won 39-34.

There were countless tries as he blew defenders out of the way, or simply carried them over the line with him.

It didn't matter who he came up against - he could use his power to run over or through defenders, or his pace to run around around them.

He will go down as arguably the greatest All Black of all time, and in New Zealand those claims are not thrown about lightly.

Yes, for a certain vintage, Sir Colin Meads will always be the best. And while the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter et al achieved more during their careers than Lomu, none of them have had the enduring global impact that Lomu has.

And none of them are known simply by their first name. For that ‘Jonah’ is simply in a league of his own.

I might have to dust off an old copy of Jonah Lomu Rugby as one final salute to one of the all-time greats.

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