fb-pixel Skip to main content

Jonah Lomu, 40; revolutionized rugby with size, speed

Mr. Lomu played in 63 tests, or international matches, with New Zealand’s national team, scoring 37 tries, the rugby analog of American football’s touchdowns.
Mr. Lomu played in 63 tests, or international matches, with New Zealand’s national team, scoring 37 tries, the rugby analog of American football’s touchdowns.Dan Chung/Reuters/file 1997

NEW YORK — Jonah Lomu, whose size, strength, and speed made him one of rugby's most fearsome wings, and who became a record-setting, nearly unstoppable scorer for the All Blacks, New Zealand's national team, died at his home in Auckland, New Zealand. He was 40.

Nadene Lomu, his wife, confirmed the death, which was either late Tuesday or early Wednesday, in a statement. A family friend, John Mayhew, formerly the All Blacks' team doctor, told The New Zealand Herald that the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Lomu had a kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome, that cut short his career and required a transplant in 2004. According to newspaper reports, his body rejected the transplant in 2011, and he had been undergoing dialysis treatment. Even so, his death was unexpected.

Advertisement



Although largely unknown in the United States, Mr. Lomu was an international star, his outsize skills and accomplishments recognized almost universally.

In rugby, as in football, the object is to advance the ball across a goal line, with the most points given when it is run across. That was Mr. Lomu's forte. At 6 feet 5 inches and more than 260 pounds, he was a mammoth athlete, with shirt-busting shoulders and muscular thighs that made shrugging off tacklers (when he was not running them over) appear casual. (Rugby players wear no padding.)

Men of Mr. Lomu's brawn rarely play wing, a position generally taken by the fleetest, most elusive players on a 15-man rugby union squad. (In rugby league, another form of the game, there are slightly different rules and 13 players on a side. Rugby sevens, with seven on a side, is played in the Olympics.) But Mr. Lomu had a sprinter's speed that, in such a big man, seemed unfair.

Beginning in 1994, when he was just 19, Mr. Lomu played in 63 tests, or international matches, with the All Blacks, scoring 37 tries, the rugby analog of American football's touchdowns. In Rugby World Cup play, he set a record with 15 tries. That total has since been equaled by Bryan Habana, a South African, but Mr. Lomu played in seven fewer World Cup matches than Habana.

Advertisement



Four of Mr. Lomu's tries came in a single match, a semifinal against England in 1995, one of the great performances in rugby history. It not only made him a star; it also allowed the All Blacks to face the South African national team, the Springboks, in a famous final.

Playing at home a year after the end of apartheid, South Africa won in a historic upset. The story of that Springboks team, and its dramatic 15-12 victory over Mr. Lomu and the All Blacks, was told in the 2009 feature film "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon as the Springboks' captain, François Pienaar, and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Mr. Lomu was portrayed by Zak Feau'nati, a star on the Samoan rugby squad.

A New Zealander of Tongan descent, Jonah Tali Lomu was born in Auckland on May 12, 1975. He was raised for several years by an aunt in Tonga before returning to New Zealand and coming of age in a tough neighborhood in South Auckland. His father, Semisi, was a factory worker who became violent when he drank, and they were estranged for many years, until shortly before the elder Lomu died in 2012. Jonah Lomu said in many interviews that the anger he had lived with as a child fueled his intensity on the rugby field.

Advertisement



His mother, Hepi, enrolled him as a teenager at Wesley College, a multicultural Christian school in the rolling farmland south of urban Auckland, and he became a rugby star.

Mr. Lomu was married and divorced twice before his marriage to Nadene Quirk in 2011. In addition to her, he leaves their two sons, Brayley and Dhyreille; his mother; and at least two siblings. (New Zealand news organizations interviewed a brother, Nehoa, and a second brother who was not named.)

"Jonah's contribution to rugby cannot be overstated," the chairman of World Rugby, Bernard Lapasset, said in a statement. "He was the first superstar player, and through his sheer brilliance and love of the game, he brought much joy to the rugby family and took our sport to a new level of profile."

A less formal tribute came from Mike Catt, a former player for England who was famously bowled over by Mr. Lomu on the way to his first try in a 1995 World Cup semifinal.

"Lomu put me on the map," Catt said in an interview with the BBC. "Everybody knew who Mike Catt was. All for the wrong reasons, of course."