Wellington (dpa) – New Zealand All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, described as the first “superstar” of rugby union, has died at the age of 40.
His death was confirmed by his wife Nadene on Facebook, and the former All Blacks doctor John Mayhew, who said Lomu passed away in Auckland after returning home from Britain on Tuesday night.
“The family are obviously devastated, as are friends and acquaintances. It was totally unexpected,” he said.
Lomu, a 1.96-metre powerhouse, became world famous at the 1995 Rugby World Cup when he steamrollered England in the semi-final, scoring four tries and displaying a formidable combination of size, speed and power.
Born in Auckland to Tongan parents, Lomu grew to around 120 kilograms and at peak fitness was able to run 100 metres in just 11 seconds.
It was his appearance at the 1995 tournament that is thought to have prompted media mogul Rupert Murdoch to buy the television rights to rugby, launching the game into the professional era.
Lomu was diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome, in 1995, and had a kidney transplant in 2004. He had been on dialysis treatment for more than 10 years and was having regular dialysis treatments during his visit to the UK where he was a spokesman for Heineken during the Rugby World Cup.
Including his test debut in 1994 against France in Christchurch, he made 63 test appearances for the All Blacks, and scored 37 tries.
He remains the youngest All Black ever, debuting in 1994 at the age of 19. He even shaved his shirt number – 11 – into his eyebrows.
Prime Minister John Key said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
“Jonah Lomu was an inspirational athlete who was generally regarded as the first true global superstar of rugby union.”
Key said he had seen Lomu a few weeks ago in London. “He was in great spirits and moved the audience with stories from his childhood, through to his time as an All Black and the illness which ultimately ended his rugby career.”
A subdued New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew told reporters it was a sad day for rugby.
“We should reflect on the amazing contribution that Jonah made. His bursting on to the international stage took the game to another level and was probably an important spark for the game getting the opportunity to go fully professional because what he did at the 1995 World Cup certainly turned some heads.”
“He was the game’s first superstar.”
Lomu was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2011 and is regarded as among the five greatest players of all time.
He is survived by his wife Nadene and two young sons Dhyreille and Brayley.