Wellington: Team-mates and rivals alike paid tribute to Jonah Lomu yesterday as the rugby world united in grief at the legendary All Black winger’s shock death aged just 40.
Players who lined up against Lomu recalled how his fearsome style transformed rugby union, while younger generations revealed how his exploits inspired them to take up the game.
“I am so, so devastated to hear of the passing away of @JONAHTALILOMU,” England’s 2003 World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson tweeted.
Jonathan Davies of Wales, a one-time opponent who became firm friends with Lomu and met him for dinner just last month, said he was struggling to believe the news.
“RIP Jonah you were a true legend and a gentleman. You changed the game of rugby and will be sorely missed,” he said.
France’s Thierry Dusautoir commented: “You inspired a generation of rugby players around the world”, a common theme among the tributes.
Englishman Danny Cipriani said Lomu was one of the reasons he first picked up a rugby ball, while for current All Black Sonny Bill Williams the inspiration was deeply personal.
Williams said the Tongan-born Lomu was fiercely proud of his Pacific islander roots, which showed him a youngster of Samoan descent could also excel on rugby’s world stage.
“The thing that stood out for me and a lot of the other young kids was how proud he was of his islander heritage,” he told Fairfax New Zealand.
“That gave us all a sense of pride.”
Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga said Lomu “single-handedly put rugby on the map” in the professional era, a sentiment echoed by former team-mate Jeff Wilson.
“Initially it was hard to understand exactly how big he’d got globally,” Wilson told Prime News.
“He took this game to a new level and people around the world knew who Jonah Lomu was and what rugby players could do.”
Star fly-half Dan Carter articulated the rugby world’s shock that Lomu had finally succumbed to the kidney disease that curtailed his playing career.
“I still can’t believe the sad news. Love and thoughts go out to Jonah’s family,” he tweeted.
Wallaby great Tim Horan said Lomu’s death left “a big hole in rugby” and Umaga said the charismatic giant was a unique rugby phenomenon.
“There’s never been another Jonah Lomu,” he told reporters. “Everyone’s tried to manufacture one by putting forwards into the backs, or someone on the wing who had the same size.
“But there’s no one like him, and to be honest, there probably never will be.”