AUCKLAND, November 30- All Black greats united to pay tribute to Jonah Lomu with a powerful haka Monday as thousands of fans packed a memorial service at New Zealand rugby’s spiritual home, Eden Park.
A grim-faced Buck Shelford led more than 20 former internationals in a “Ka Mate” haka while the legendary winger’s casket was carried into a hearse.
Former teammates including Tana Umaga, Justin Marshall and John Kirwan joined the emotional tribute on the same turf that Lomu once dominated as a player.
“Jonah, you were a freak on the field and a gentle, caring giant off it,” former All Blacks coach John Hart said.
A Maori mourning chant echoed around the Auckland stadium as Lomu’s black casket was carried through the players’ tunnel, preceded by an honour guard of tattooed warriors.
Lomu’s wife Nadene and sons Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5, wearing black shirts with the winger’s number 11, followed with heads bowed.
He died unexpectedly at his Auckland home this month aged just 40 from cardiac arrest related to the chronic kidney disease that cut short his playing career.
He was a beloved figure in New Zealand, even among those too young to have seen him in action, and the memorial ceremony was broadcast live by all major television stations.
Eden Park was a happy hunting ground for the player, who appeared in six Tests at the venue and won five of them.
Hart said there could be no better place for the big man’s send-off.
“We’ve chosen Eden Park because it’s the spiritual home of rugby and somewhere that Jonah loved so much,” he said.
World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset made the 18,000 kilometre (11,000 mile) trip from France to pay his respects to a man he said helped bring the sport into the professional era.
“He’s an icon in rugby and I have to represent all the fans that Jonah had in the world,” he said.
“This fantastic man delivered a very great message about rugby to the world… he terrified defences and thrilled spectators with a brand of running rugby that had never been seen before.”
– ‘Rest in peace brother’ –
Since Lomu’s death, tributes have poured in from across the rugby world, with many current players recalling how he inspired them to take up the game.
Such was his fame that condolences also came from beyond the sport, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, British footballer David Beckham, Hollywood star Morgan Freeman and singer Elton John.
Former Wallaby Tim Horan said no player in the sport had ever matched Lomu’s worldwide appeal.
“He put rugby on the map globally. He helped put rugby on the map in areas were people don’t normally watch it,” he said.
Lomu scored 37 tries in his 63 Tests for New Zealand, becoming rugby’s first global superstar with a combination of raw speed and brute strength.
But Prime Minister John Key said it was a bitter defeat that showed Lomu’s true character, recalling his sportsmanship when the All Blacks suffered a shock loss to France in the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup.
“Despite his deep disappointment, Jonah remained on the field until he’d shaken the hand of every single French player,” Key said in a video address from Paris where he is attending climate talks.
“More often than not, he was also the last player standing on the sideline signing autographs for young fans. That was Jonah.”
Former sevens teammate Eric Rush joked about Lomu’s prodigious appetite and dislike of training, his voice faltering as he remembered his friend.
“We’re going to miss you big man, rest in peace brother,” he said.
The memorial service will be followed by a private funeral on Tuesday.
Five facts on Lomu
— At his peak, the 1.96 metre (six foot five inch) Lomu weighed 120 kilograms (264 pounds) and could cover 100 metres in 10.80 seconds. That is heavier than Muhammad Ali (107kg fighting weight), taller than Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno (1.94m) and faster than the career personal best of women’s two-time Olympic 100m gold medallist Gail Dever (10.82s).
— Even at his best, medics estimated Lomu’s kidney condition meant he was only operating at 80 percent. “Had he been 100 percent fit, I wonder what he could’ve done, that’s scary,” retiring All Black skipper Richie McCaw said this month.
— Lomu scored a record 15 tries at Rugby World Cups, with eight of them coming in 1999, a record in itself for most tries at a single tournament. Both marks were only equalled this year by South Africa’s Bryan Habana (15 World Cup tries) and All Black Julian Savea (eight in one tournament).
— Lomu perfected the move known as “the Maori sidestep” — running over the top of your opponent instead of trying to go around them. The most famous example was against England’s Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup semi-final, when he finished with four tries in the match. “Lomu put me on the map … for the wrong reasons!” Catt said this month, recalling a try that was later voted the greatest in rugby history.
— Film-makers struggled to cast an actor with Lomu’s physique for the 2009 movie “Invictus” and eventually settled on Kiwi-born Samoan rugby player Zak Feaunati, even though he was seven centimetres shorter and 13 kilograms lighter than the real thing. “I called him up and told him he’d better get himself a box to stand on,” Lomu joked.