In Depth

Jonah Lomu, rugby's greatest superstar, dies at the age of 40

The giant New Zealand winger who destroyed England turned rugby union on its head, but was struck down with kidney disease

By Gavin Mortimer

Jonah Lomu is dead. The greatest player in the history of rugby union, and one of sport's global superstars, died in Auckland on Tuesday evening of cardiac arrest. He was 40.

Lomu transformed rugby union when he burst onto the scene 20 years ago. The sport - which was in the throes of turning professional - had never seen such a player. He stood 6ft 5in, weighed 18 stone and yet had the speed of a sprinter. He had balance, too, and a rugby intelligence that was sometimes overlooked by those who saw in the All Black winger only size and strength.

Lomu, aged just 20, was the star of the 1995 World Cup, scoring four tries in the semi-final thrashing of England. But the following year Lomu was diagnosed with a rare and serious kidney disorder.

He missed much of the 1997 season but returned to the sport at the end of the year, and in 1998 was a member of New Zealand Sevens squad that won gold at the Commonwealth Games. In 1999 he once more lit up the Rugby World Cup with his brilliance, scoring eight tries to take his tournament tally to 15 overall, a number that has yet to be surpassed.

In all he scored 37 tries in 63 Tests for New Zealand but following his last international in 2002, Lomu's health deteriorated and in 2004 he underwent a kidney transplant.

For seven and a half years he was able to lead a normal life, even returning to play club rugby, but in 2011 his body rejected the kidney and he became a prisoner to dialysis, requiring three treatments a week each lasting six hours.

In an interview with the Daily Mail on the eve of the recent World Cup, Lomu admitted: "You have to try and stay up and be happy and positive about it. Because I will tell you one thing: it does get you down at times. It's difficult. Every dialysis patient is different but we have one commonality: we have no other choice. Your second choice isn't really a choice. It's just you giving up."

Lomu knew the outlook was uncertain, telling the Mail that his ambition was to see his two boys - aged six and five - turn 21. "There are no guarantees that will happen, but it's my focus," he said. "It's a milestone that every parent wants to get to. My dad died young and that makes you think."

According to the New Zealand Herald, Lomu died at home surrounded by his family. His wife, Nadene Lomu, issued a short statement in which she said: "It is with great sadness that I must announce my dear husband Jonah Lomu died last night. As you can imagine this is a devastating loss for our family."

Family friend and former All Blacks team doctor John Mayhew confirmed that the death was linked to Lomu's kidney disorder, telling the Herald: "The final mechanism was something that caused the heart to go into cardiac arrest, most probably a cardiac or pulmonary event. Cardiac arrest is the final pathway of the heart shutting down. That's all there is really."

The news of Lomu's death, coming less than a month after the All Blacks had become the first country to retain the World Cup, has stunned New Zealand. "Jonah was a legend of our game and loved by his many fans both here and around the world," said New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, while Prime Minister John Key said: "The thoughts of the entire country are with his family."

Tributes also poured from former teammates and opponents, with Jonny Wilkinson exclaiming his shock at the news. He said he was "devastated" and described Lomu as rugby's "greatest superstar and just a fabulous human being".

Others joined the tributes on Twitter.

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