Sports

Jonah: A Legend So Big it Took a Stadium to Farewell Him

Jonah Lomu was farewelled for the final time in public today. Don Rowe reports on a moving ceremony.

Jonah Lomu remains a giant even in death. Under grey clouds he entered Eden Park for the last time today, carried on the shoulders of Manu Vatuvei, Jerome Kaino, Frank Bunce, Michael Jones and more. The men struggled beneath the weight of the casket which bore his body. Behind walked his wife Nadene and sons Brayley and Dhyreille, their burden greater still.

Thousands of people watched from the stands. They laughed, cried, cheered and mourned. The people of Tonga wore taʻovala; those of West Auckland jeans and wrap-around sunglasses. MC John Campbell wore spectacles, and Josh Kronfeld tried out a handlebar moustache. They all waved plastic flags on cardboard handles, emblazoned with the number 11. The full Warriors team watched from behind the dead ball line, as did the Blues.

The ceremony took place on a raised pavilion between vertical purple hangings. A black jersey lay across the head of Jonah’s coffin. It bore the number 11. The rest of the casket was covered in small white flowers.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 30:  (L-R) Rugby League player Manu Vatuvei and All Blacks player Jerome Kaino carry the casket carrying Jonah Lomu from the Public Memorial for Jonah Lomu at Eden Park on November 30, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Rugby League player Manu Vatuvei and All Blacks player Jerome Kaino carry the casket carrying Jonah Lomu from the Public Memorial for Jonah Lomu at Eden Park on November 30, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Prime Minister John Key filled the big screens above Eden Park with a prerecorded message of support, and World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset spoke in person. They celebrated Lomu’s impact on the sport of rugby, his on-field ferocity and superstardom on the world stage. The pupils of Favona Primary celebrated too, albeit with slightly different sentiment. “Number 11, our friend, our hero,” they sang, dancing on stage with beautiful sincerity and significant gumption.

Former All Black’s coach John Hart spoke next. He praised Jonah’s tenacity, his strength and endurance. Lomu forged a legacy in professional sports functioning at no more than 80% physical capacity, said Hart. “It’s frightening to think what he could have done on the field had he not played with such a huge medical handbrake.”

Eric Rush shared a moment of rare vulnerability with the mourning crowd. “I’m going to tell a few stories about the big fella, and hope he doesn’t sit up,” he joked. It was clear he would have liked nothing more however, his voice breaking in a final farewell to ‘a good mate, and a loving dad.’

Ardijah played their cover of ‘Silly Love Songs’, and Lizzie Marvelley sang ‘How Great Thou Art’. The crowd moved from side to side in unison. There were tears here and there, but they came through smiles. These were the ‘tears of the way’, an acknowledgement of grief and loss, but an honouring, too, of the life and mana of Jonah Lomu. That he ever existed to perform such incredible feats of athleticism and altruism, and that his death could bring so many together, that was why the people at Eden Park cried.

Jonah Lomu was honored with several haka as he made his way off the park. All Blacks past and present were followed by the students of Wesley College in resounding and chilling renditions. As Jonah’s casket entered the hearse, Nadene Lomu released a single white dove. It flew several times around the stadium, and then out, past the goalposts and past the flags of New Zealand, Tonga and the All Blacks.

They all hung at half mast.

21 Jul 2001:  Jonah Lomu of New Zealand in action during the Tri-Nations match against South Africa at  Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa.  Mandatory Credit:  Dave Rogers/Allsport

21 Jul 2001: Jonah Lomu of New Zealand in action during the Tri-Nations match against South Africa at Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa. Mandatory Credit: Dave Rogers/Allsport

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