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Jonah Lomu: The day black taxi driver Michael gave All Blacks legend the tour of Belfast

By Rebecca Black

It was a black taxi tour that Belfast man Michael Johnston will never forget - the day he introduced the world's greatest rugby player, Jonah Lomu, to his home city.

The retired New Zealand winger's passing at the age of just 40 was announced in the early hours of yesterday, leaving fans across the globe shocked.

Lomu, who scored 37 tries in 63 Test matches, had suffered from health problems since retiring from the game in 2002 due to a rare kidney disease. He died after suddenly collapsing just hours after returning to Auckland from a trip to Dubai.

The player will be remembered by Black Taxi Tours driver Michael, who took some of the legendary All Blacks rugby team on an adventure around some of the city's Troubles hotspots.

The team were fresh from the pitch on Lansdowne Road where - thanks to Lomu's prowess - they had just clobbered the Ireland side 40-29.

Relaxing after their win, the side travelled north to explore the other side of the island before their long journey home.

In 2001, just three years after the Good Friday Agreement, the peace was still settling in Belfast, and such visitors were a rarity.

Lomu was already the first true superstar of rugby union when Michael enjoyed showing him around the sights, including the famous peace walls and murals.

And he couldn't resist posing for a photograph with the sports star under the slopes of Black Mountain.

The Auckland-born former Cardiff Blue is best remembered for his impact on the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when having gone into the tournament with only two caps to his name, he scored seven tries, including four in a devastating semi-final display against England.

Until then, wingers had been quick and nimble. Now they were big and brutal, but fast nonetheless.

Despite their teams having been on the receiving end of Lomu's skill and strength, Irish and English players paid heartfelt tributes to Lomu.

They included Gary Halpin, who famously gesticulated at New Zealand, having scored the opening try for Ireland in that 1995 clash.

The Irish celebrations were short lived, as New Zealand - and a young Lomu - struck back.

"He did for rugby what Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis did for rock and roll ... rugby had never seen anybody that big, or that quick," said Halpin.

"Our first impressions of him were of his size and physique - I suppose our lasting impression was that we very quickly realised that something had arrived on the world stage - that he was going to change world rugby, that rugby would never be the same again.

"Rugby had never seen anything like him unleashed.

Ulster and Ireland rugby ace Tommy Bowe added: "Very shocked to hear the sad news about Jonah Lomu. Our sport has lost its first real superstar. RIP Jonah."

Brian O'Driscoll, who played against Lomu early in his own career, said: "I remember in that game [against New Zealand in 2001] being left one-on-one with him. There was inevitability about what was going to happen.

"Once they got the ball into Jonah's hands, against someone that was 5ft 10in, simple physics would tell you there was only going to be one winner.

"He ran over the top of me and scored a try, and that was part of their comeback."

Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England to victory in the 2003 World Cup, added: "I am so, so devastated to hear of the passing away of [Jonah Lomu]. The greatest superstar and just a fabulous human being. Deeply saddened."

Irish international Gordon D'Arcy wrote: "Jonah, a legend of the game and a lovely man off the field. He will be missed. Thoughts with his family. RIP Jonah."

And scrum-half for Sale and Ireland, Peter Stringer, added: "So sad to hear that Jonah Lomu has passed away. "He was a superstar that changed our game forever and above all, a true gentleman. RIP Jonah."

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