The skies over Eden Park might have been grey but the colours were overwhelmingly black and white as thousands of devoted fans from all walks of life gathered to celebrate the life of rugby’s “first truly global superstar”, Jonah Lomu.
Young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, thousands turned out to farewell the rugby great - who died suddenly on November 18 aged 40, after a long battle with a rare kidney disease. Poignantly waving their number 11 flags, they laughed, cried and clapped through the two hour ceremony, MCed by broadcaster John Campbell, with performances by Jonah’s favourite music artists, Adeaze and Ardijah, and a version of hymn “How Great Thou Art,” by Lizzie Marvelly.
A conch call and a rousing haka started the emotional tribute, with Jonah’s widow, Nadene a protective arm around each of the couple’s sons, Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5 paying their respects at the black casket, before a stream of close friends and acquaintances shared their memories.
Bernard Lapasset, Chairman of World Rugby, flew the 18000 kilometre trip from France, joining former All Blacks teammates in paying tribute to the star’s contribution to rugby and his charity work.
“He was rugby’s first truly global superstar” acknowledged the Frenchman, describing Jonah as "a giant of a man (who) leaves a giant space in world rugby. He will forever be a big part of rugby's story."
Mourners watched a recording by Prime Minister John Key, currently in France for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, and a video montage of high points in Jonah’s rugby career, including a tribute by British music legend Elton John during his recent concert tour to New Zealand.
Among the touching tributes on stage at Eden Park was a song by the pupils of Jonah’s former school, Favona Primary in South Auckland, who wrote and performed a tribute song naming Jonah as "No. 11, our friend in heaven."
Former All Black Eric Rush drew laughter as he recalled of his friend, whom he called “the big man-child”.
“Off the pitch he was such a humble, respectful, generous…typical island boy,” who embodied the old Polynesian saying: “It’s better to walk into a room, sit at the back, then be asked to go to the front then to go to the room, sit at the front and be told to get to the back.”
But, as Mr Rush acknowledged, “he also had a stubborn streak” – recalling a time when he spied Jonah munching on a 16-egg baguette – which incensed then AB’s coach Laurie Mains. But it was a moment of Jonah’s trademark stubbornness that he remained unrepentant about the treat when faced with the coach’s wrath.
“You didn’t tell Jonah to do anything,” smiled Rush. “If you asked him, he'd run through a brick wall for you.”
A portrait emerged of a very private man, to whom family was everything and money not so much. He once turned down a lucrative contract, recalled Rush, saying: “It’s only money.”
Former All Blacks coach John Hart spoke on behalf of the Lomu family, thanking mourners and expressing gratitude for the tributes that had poured in from around the world.
"You were a freak on the field and a gentle, loving giant off it," he said of All Black No.941.
Mr Hart recounted Lomu's almost 20-year battle with the debilitating kidney illness nephrotic syndrome which eventually forced his retirement and is thought to have contributed to his death.
"It's frightening to think what he could have done on the field had he not played with such a huge medical handbrake," he said. "He overcame tremendous hurdles throughout his life but never, ever complained. He was a fighter until the very end."
Spirited Hakas were performed by former All Blacks, Blues and Warriors, and students from his old school, Wesley College.
As the coffin was carried to a waiting hearse, Nadene carefully released a lone dove followed by a further two dozen of the graceful birds, which circled the stadium before disappearing off into the grey skies.
A private family funeral will be held on Tuesday.
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