Fans, foes, friends saddened by death of Jonah Lomu
In this June 18, 1995 file photo, New Zealand All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu runs around England's Will Carling on his way to score the opening try in the Rugby World Cup semifinal at Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa. Lomu, whose power and pace revolutionized rugby and whose humility and grace won millions of fans, died early Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, New Zealand Rugby said. He was 40. (AP Photo/Ross Setford,File)
AP Sports Writer
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Jonah Lomu's huge impact on the game of rugby and his fame, which spilled beyond the sport's traditional borders, was reflected in the breadth of tributes that flowed Wednesday after his unexpected death at the age of 40.
Heads of state, fans, teammates and former rivals from around the world expressed their shock and sadness at the sudden death of the legendary All Blacks winger whose revolutionary pace and power made him one of rugby's most famous faces.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key responded to news of Lomu's death, which followed his almost 20-year struggle with kidney illness, by saying "The thoughts of the entire country are with his family."
"He truly is and was a legend of the game," Key told reporters in Manila, where he was attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Key said it was too soon to know whether there would be a state funeral for Lomu, or what other plans would be put in place.
Lomu had only returned to New Zealand with his family a day on Tuesday after spending almost two months in Europe during the Rugby World Cup, where he was often mobbed by fans.
John Mayhew, the former All Blacks team doctor who was a close friend of Lomu and aided him in his battle against the rare kidney ailment Nephrotic syndrome, released the news on behalf of the family.
"It was totally unexpected. Jonah and his family arrived back from the United Kingdom last night and he suddenly died this morning," Mayhew said. "The family is obviously devastated, as are friends and acquaintances."
Lomu had seemed in good health during the World Cup, at one point leading fans in a stirring haka. He was an active Twitter user who most recently tweeted two days ago during a family stopover in Dubai. No cause of death has been confirmed.
Lomu was diagnosed with Nephrotic syndrome in 1995 and was forced to retire from international rugby in 2002. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2004 and attempted to re-start his career against the advice of doctors, playing in Wales and France before finally retiring in 2006.
He had a bout of ill health in late 2011 when his body rejected his donor kidney and was undergoing dialysis treatment three times a week while awaiting a second transplant.
Lomu remained immensely popular with rugby fans long after his retirement and was well known even in countries in which rugby was an oddity. He continued to travel the world as an ambassador for the sport and was possibly most sought after in England, where his feats as a bulldozing winger had made him a legendary figure.
"I am so, so devastated to hear of the passing away of Jonah Lomu," former England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson said. "The greatest superstar and just a fabulous human being. Deeply saddened."
All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter tweeted: "I still can't believe the sad news. Love and thoughts go out to Jonah's family." And All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg said Lomu "made rugby what it is today."
Jonathan Davies, who played flyhalf for Wales, said he spent an evening with Lomu and his family last month.
"RIP Jonah, you were a true legend and a gentleman. You changed the game of rugby and will be sorely missed," Davies said.