By STEVE McMORRAN, 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 Wednesday after his unexpected death at the age of 40.
Heads of state, fans, teammates and former rivals expressed shock and sadness at the passing of the legendary All Blacks winger whose revolutionary pace and power made him one of rugby’s most famous names.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said 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.
Addressing New Zealand’s Parliament, Sports Minister Jonathan Coleman made reference to Lomu’s humble beginnings in a working class family in Auckland’s southern suburbs.
“Jonah proved you could come from anywhere in New Zealand and make it to the top,” Coleman said.
Lomu had only returned to New Zealand with his family on Tuesday after spending almost two months in Europe during the Rugby World Cup, where he was often mobbed by fans.
His wife Nadene, who was also his manager, confirmed Lomu’s death in a statement Wednesday.
“It is with great sadness that I must announce my dear husband Jonah Lomu died last night,” she said. “This is a devastating loss for our family and may I ask that our privacy, especially the privacy of our two very young boys, be respected as we take them through this traumatic time.”
John Mayhew, the former All Blacks team doctor who was a close friend of Lomu and aided him during his almost 20-year struggle against the rare kidney ailment nephrotic syndrome, said the death was “totally unexpected.” He said the cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Lomu had appeared to be in good health during the World Cup, at one point leading fans in a stirring haka.
“I saw him at the World Cup and he looked so well. It’s just a hell of a shock,” said Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to the 2011 World Cup title.”
Lomu was diagnosed with the kidney problem in 1995 and retired from international rugby in 2002. He underwent a 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 setback in 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 long after his retirement and was admired even in countries in which rugby was little known. 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 star Sonny Bill Williams said Lomu had inspired a generation of Pacific islands players.
“For me, Jonah embodied that islander spirit,” Williams said. “You would have to say he was the first proper worldwide rugby superstar.”
Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga said Lomu “single-handedly put rugby back on the map.”
“We’ve got to make sure we understand that and respect that,” Umaga said. “You go anywhere and, although the All Blacks are huge, the one player they talk about is Jonah Lomu.”
Lomu’s death was acutely felt Wednesday at his former high school, Wesley College, a mainly Polynesian boarding school in Auckland where he first played rugby. In his mid-teens Lomu weighed 120 kilograms and ran the 100 meters in 10.89 seconds but he had to be cajoled into rugby. Many who play the game at the school now do so because of Lomu’s example.