Thousands of people, some wearing traditional Tongan woven mats, yesterday gathered in Auckland for a Pacific island farewell for late rugby legend Jonah Lomu.
Former All Blacks Tana Umaga and Michael Jones led mourners at the service, which Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in New Zealand, Governor-General Jerry Mateparae, said was a celebration, because “Jonah’s life is worth celebrating.”
“He impressed us with his courage, his humility, his grace under pressure,” Mateparae said of the blockbusting wing, who is credited with revolutionizing rugby and became the game’s first global superstar.
Lomu’s career was cut short by a chronic kidney disease and he died unexpectedly at his Auckland home last week aged 40, leaving a wife and two young sons.
The sudden death brought an outpouring of grief around the world, not only from rugby union teammates and rivals, but also politicians, Hollywood personalities and sports stars.
“His determination to use his influence and his mana [prestige] for the benefit of others was exemplary,” Mataparae said.
Ahead of tomorrow’s public memorial at the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby — Auckland’s Eden Park — the Pacific island communities yesterday gathered for a “family day” to pay a traditional tribute to Lomu, who was of Tongan descent.
His widow Nadene and sons Dhyreille and Brayley — who were wearing All Black jerseys with the name Lomu and the number 11 on the back — led the mourners into the service.
Hundreds of Pacific islanders, many wearing a ta’ovala — a mat wrapped around the waist, which is a traditional Tongan dress worn by men and women on special occasions — turned up for the service where former All Black captain Umaga said it was important to gather in South Auckland, where Lomu was born.
“We come to pay our respects in the area and with the people he grew up with,” Umaga said.
The Pacific family day was an “intimate and beautiful part of the mourning and the healing,” Jones said.
Manu Vatuvei, a star in the rival code rugby league, described Lomu as a special man.
“When he played on the field, he was a beast and no one could stop him, but when he was off the field he was a gentle giant,” he said.
Another former All Black, Ofisa Tonu’u, a spokesman for the gathering, described it as a “joyous” celebration where people could “tell stories and a few eulogies, and just to celebrate Jonah’s career and the legacy he’s left behind.”
“We have come to celebrate, to celebrate the life of a brother, and a friend,” former All Black Eroni Clarke added.
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