Fans, friends, old rivals saddened by death of Jonah Lomu

Rugby Star Jonah Lomu Dies at 40

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.

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Rugby player Jonah Lomu dies
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Fans, friends, old rivals saddened by death of Jonah Lomu
Former New Zealand rugby union player Jonah Lomu is pictured as he prepares to take part in a haka during a photocall in London's Covent Garden on September 16, 2015. The 2015 Rugby Union World Cup begins at London's Twickenham Stadium on September 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Jonah Lomu of North Harbour is wrapped up by Joel Nasmith of Otago during the Air New Zealand Cup match between North Harbour and Otago at North Harbour Stadium on September 17, 2006 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
LONDON, NOVEMBER 5: Former New Zealand All Black, Jomah Lomu takes part in a Touch Rugby session at Richmond Park on November 5, 2006 in London, England. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)
Former New Zealand rugby union player Jonah Lomu (Front R) and members of the Ngati Ranana London Maori Club perform a haka during a photocall in London's Covent Garden on September 16, 2015. The 2015 Rugby Union World Cup begins at London's Twickenham Stadium on September 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: Former New Zealand All Black Jonah Lomu takes a selfie during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham Stadium on October 31, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 08: Former All Black Jonah Lomu arrives at Auckland Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Parnell on February 8, 2013 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hundreds gathered to pay their respects to Sir Paul Homes who passed away last Friday after losing his battle with prostate cancer. Holmes broadcasting career spanned over 40 years on radio and television in New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and the UK. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
All Blacks great Jonah Lomu, watches an Australian Wallabies training session at North Harbour Stadium near Auckland during the 2011 Rugby World Cup on October 19, 2011. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Rugby legend Jonah Lomu (L), former All Blacks winger and new player of Marseille Vitrolles rugby union club vies with US Montmelian Nicolas Tricoli during his first match with his French third division team on November 22, 2009 in Vitrolles, southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 08: Jonah Lomu of North Harbour runs with the ball during the Air New Zealand Cup match between North Harbour and Manawatu at North Harbour Stadium September 8, 2006 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Former All Black international rugby player Jonah Lomu poses during his competitive debut in the over-90kg novice category at the Wellington Bodybuilding Championships at Victoria University on September 19, 2009 in Wellington, New Zealand. Lomu, a kidney transplant patient has lost 28kg in the past two years during a discipined training regime and he is returning to play professional rugby for Marseille Vitrolles in France at the end of the year. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES- DECEMBER 8: Jonah Lomu, the former New Zealand All Black who has been selected to play for Cardiff Blues against Calvisano on Saturday, attends the media conference held at The Arms Park on December 8, 2005 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images).
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: Jonah Lomu breaks into a smile after a teammate scored a try during The Nobok Challenge Martin Johnson XV versus Jonah Lomu XV match at Twickenham in London 4 June 2005. Lomu is playing his first international occasion in three years after a kidney transplant last year. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY: Former New Zealand All Black rugby player Jonah Lomu smiles during a news conference in Rome 10 November 2004. The All Blacks legend said he was hoping to make a return to competitive rugby in 12 months and then help New Zealand win the World Cup in 2007. AFP PHOTO/Paolo COCCO (Photo credit should read PAOLO COCCO/AFP/Getty Images)
LAMORLAYE, FRANCE: (ARCHIVES) - New Zealand's All Blacks rugby legend Jonah Lomu is pictured 11 November 2002 at the Lamorlaye stadium. The ailing Lomu, 29, who suffers from a rare kidney disorder, could receive a transplant within a month, and is already talking of playing Test rugby again in time for the 2007 World Cup, the Sunday News and Radio New Zealand reported. AFP PHOTO DAMIEN MEYER (Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 22: Hurricanes replacement Jonah Lomu runs the ball at the defence, backed up by Daryl Lilley (R), during the opening Super12 rugby match of 2002 at WestpacTrust Stadium, Wellington, Friday. Blues 60, Hurricanes 7. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

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.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew suggested Lomu was a catalyst for rugby's move to professionalism in the mid-1990s. His try-scoring efforts at the 1995 World Cup so gripped the sporting world that broadcasters were prepared to bid large sums to win rugby's television rights, underpinning the era of player payment.

Associated Press writer Nick Perry in Wellington contributed to this report

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