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Jonah Lomu: First true great of game who fought kidney disease


By Neil Francis

Jonah Lomu, the outsized All Black wing who split teams asunder at every turn during the 1995 World Cup and became one of international sport's most celebrated figures as a result, brought rugby union together as one yesterday as players, coaches and administrators from all corners of the game's landscape mourned his death at the distressingly early age of 40.

Lomu died of a heart attack shortly after returning to his home in Auckland from a trip to Dubai. He had been suffering from kidney disease for more than 20 years.

Tributes were paid in the country's parliament, while the prime minister John Key, speaking from Vietnam, described Lomu as the 15-man code's "first true global superstar".

Key could not say whether the North Islander of Tongan descent would be awarded a state funeral, but he described him as "an inspirational athlete" and a "great ambassador, not only for rugby but for New Zealand".

There had been no secrecy over the extent of Lomu's health issues: the first signs of nephrotic syndrome (a kidney disorder) were evident even as he steamrollered his way through the 1995 tournament in South Africa, and a steady worsening of his condition forced him to retire from international rugby in 2002, although he continued to play at club level until late 2006.

According to Dr John Mayhew, a close family friend who served as the All Blacks' chief medic for 13 years, the cardiac failure was "inevitably" linked to his kidney problems.

The England attacking skills coach Mike Catt, who faced Lomu on World Cup semi-final day in Cape Town two decades ago without conspicuous success - the New Zealander scored four tries in a performance that passed into legend - was among the many on-field victims who paid his respects.

"I'm massively sad, but the legacy he's left is incredible," Catt said. "He inspired millions of people to watch the sport and start playing it.

"His ability to move at 18 stone was amazing. He didn't want to run through people every time but he had that ability, and his footwork and speed off the mark was second to none. You just couldn't get near the guy."

One of the fabled All Blacks who played alongside Lomu that day, the number eight Zinzan Brooke, described himself as "in shock" at his friend's passing.

"He could have played in any position he wanted," Brooke said. "It was amazing, what he did in that 1995 World Cup. He launched himself on to the international scene and changed the way the game was played in an instant. He was a very calm person, but you knew you had a force with the team. He was phenomenal."

Mayhew, who had continued to act as Lomu's personal doctor, said his patient had been in "pretty good shape" recently - a view that was borne out by several of those who spent time with him during the World Cup in England in September and October.

"I have been his doctor for a long time," Mayhew added. "It's staggering. A very sad day."

Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning England coach whose sides had their share of Lomu challenges down the years, recalled one eve-of-match meeting he held with his players. "I remember telling them there was nobody in the All Blacks who would get into our side, that man for man I wouldn't swap anybody," he said.

"When I got to the end, Will Greenwood put up his hand and said, 'Clive, we're all with you, but I think I'm speaking on behalf of the team when I say we'd probably swap Austin Healey for Jonah Lomu'."

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