Image: Former and present All Black’s (R) watch as former All Black Jonah Lomu’s casket is carried out of Eden Park during his memorial service in Auckland, New Zealand, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Nigel Marple
AUCKLAND (Reuters) – Six simple words eloquently summed up the impact Jonah Lomu had on rugby union when New Zealand paid its final respects to the former All Blacks winger on Monday.
“Too big, too fast, too much,” Lomu’s high school coach Chris Grinter told the thousands of people who had flocked to Eden Park for a public memorial service.
Lomu, rugby’s first global superstar, died unexpectedly at the age of 40 on Nov. 18. He had been suffering from a kidney disease for 20 years and was awaiting a second transplant.
The service at the ground where the hulking winger once thundered down the touchlines was the last chance for his compatriots to publicly mourn his death and celebrate his life.
He will be buried after a private funeral service later this week.
Lomu’s casket was carried to a specially built stage by former team mates, including All Blacks Michael Jones, Frank Bunce and Jerome Kaino.
Many of the speakers at the service referred not only to Lomu’s abilities on the field but also to what he did off it by making time for autograph hunters and bringing hope to sick children through hospital visits.
Several remarked on his impact as a role model for children in South Auckland, which has a high proportion of Pacific Island families who related to Lomu, who was of Tongan heritage.
One such tribute was a song performed by a group of students from Favona Primary School in Mangere, which Lomu attended.
“You showed us to follow our dreams, never give up and follow our dreams,” they sang.
The service, which was broadcast on both main free-to-air television channels in New Zealand, also included musical interludes from South Auckland artists.
Former All Blacks team mate Eric Rush brought an element of humour to the proceedings.
Rush repeated tales of an aversion to training and a voracious appetite that brought Lomu into conflict with the strict nutritional edicts of his professional coaches.
“It was a love-hate relationship. I loved training, he loved the Manukau city food court,” Rush said.
“You didn’t tell Jonah to do anything, but if you asked him, he’d run through a brick wall for you.”
World Rugby’s French chairman Bernard Lapasset said Lomu was “a giant” of the game, while former All Blacks coach John Hart said the world never saw Lomu at his best due to his illness.
“It is frightening to consider what he could have achieved on the field if he had not played his entire career with a massive medical handbrake,” said Hart.
“You were a freak on the field and … to the world you will be remembered as the All Black who made number 11 his own.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)
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