Jonah Lomu, who bulldozed opponents with his size and blistering speed only to be felled by a kidney illness that extinguished his meteoric All Blacks career, died suddenly on Wednesday. He was 40.
"Jonah was a legend of our game and loved by his many fans both here and around the world," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said, describing Lomu as "probably the game's first superstar."
"We're lost for words. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Jonah's family."
Tew said Lomu died at his home in Auckland, adding: "We don't know much more than that."
The son of immigrants from Tonga, innately humble off the pitch, was at his devastating best at the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, scoring 15 tries in 11 games but never winning the trophy.
The stabbing death of a friend steered Lomu away from street gangs in the blue-collar suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where he grew up.
Rugby gave him new direction. He channeled anger he felt about his father into the sport. Aged just 19 for the first of his 63 tests, he was a physical colossus for a winger — six-foot-four and 262 pounds — and quite terrifying when pounding through defensive lines at speed.
Nephrotic syndrome, a degenerative kidney illness, curtailed his career at his peak. Lomu tried making a comeback after a 2004 transplant but was forced to abandon hopes of playing the 2007 World Cup. He played his last match in 2006.
At the height of his career, Lomu had the ear of Nelson Mandela, charmed Hollywood comedian Robin Williams — who wore an All Blacks cap and called him "mate" — and visited parliaments and palaces.
His father, Semisi Lomu, was a factory worker, devoutly religious and a harsh disciplinarian. His mother, Hepi, held together the family living on a shoestring and acted as a buffer between father and son.
"At times he was the best dad that he could be," Lomu said in a 2013 interview. "It was just when he drank, that's when me and him disagreed. He was quite violent when he was drunk.
"Mum was always there to protect the kids. And when Dad got angry and wanted to bash us, she would get in the way. It builds up a lot of things inside of me."
Spent early years in Tonga
At age one, Lomu was sent to Tonga to be raised by an aunt who, for the next five years, he thought of as his mother. On return to New Zealand, Lomu rebelled against the strict father, leading to their eventual estrangement, and gravitated toward the streets.
"It made me battle-hardened for rugby," he said. "When I was playing, when I found it hard, I just thought of my father and that got me through it. That anger got me through it."
After the death of his friend, Lomu found new direction at Auckland's Wesley College, a famous nursery of Polynesia rugby talent. There, he first showed the devastating combination of size fused with speed. Playing out on the wing, with time and space to hit his stride, he crashed through or cruised around opponents.
He played for New Zealand's under-19 team and starred in rugby sevens before his international debut in June 1994 as the youngest All Black, aged 19 years, 45 days. He became a formidable scoring weapon after mastering the technique of test rugby, scoring 37 test tries.
Selected late to the All Blacks squad after an injury to John Timu, Lomu burst to international fame at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He scored seven tries in five matches, including four in a rampaging semifinal win over England.
But by then he also knew he was sick. He missed tests against South Africa in 1996 and almost all of the 1997 season.
In 1998, he won a gold medal in rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games. At the 1999 World Cup in Britain, he scored eight tries in six games, including two in New Zealand's semifinal loss to France.
Lomu remained an All Black until 2002, but his health faded. He required dialysis three times a week. After his kidney transplant, he played with New Zealand's North Harbour province and, with moderate success, for the Cardiff Blues in Wales.
"I was hoping that it would get better but it never did," he said. "But, you know, I would never change anything."