If you’ve ever visited Niagara Falls or seen Vesuvius erupting, you’ll know that it’s something you remember for the rest of your life. The New Zealand rugby-player Jonah Lomu was like that: an awesome power of nature who astonished and humbled anyone who saw him in action. He was a giant who could run like a gazelle, able to power through the heaviest tackles and leave the swiftest opponents trailing in his wake.

Now, far too soon, he’s left the country that adored him, the sport that idolized him and the world that was awed by him. Lomu was born only forty years ago, the son of Tongan immigrants to New Zealand. He was from a warrior race and for a time in his youth he found it difficult to channel his energy and strength in socially acceptable ways. He was involved with gangs in Auckland, but he moved on and found the right stage for his outstanding physical and athletic gifts: international rugby.

New Zealand is a small country with only four million inhabitants, but it punches far above its weight when it comes to sport. Godzone – or “God’s own”, as it’s sometimes jokingly called – has produced world-class performers in everything from cricket and mountaineering to athletics and yachting, but Lomu may be the greatest of them all. He certainly chose the right sport to win the hearts of his fellow countrymen, because rugby has always been the best way for New Zealand to make its mark on the world. The All Blacks are the country’s most famous and most popular ambassadors. They’ve been striking fear into the hearts of their opponents for over a century now and their dominance of world rugby has rarely been threatened.

When Jonah Lomu entered the side in 1994, that All-Black dominance looked to be guaranteed for many years ahead. No player had ever combined such enormous strength and size with such speed and acceleration. He was rugby’s first superstar, amazing even veteran commentators with his running ability and try-scoring prowess. He attracted new fans to the sport, confirmed old fans in their allegiance, and gave all of them sporting memories to last a lifetime.

But if he was a force of nature, he was more like Vesuvius than Niagara, because he blazed briefly and then faded away. He erupted onto the international arena, dazzling and awing team-mates, opponents and spectators, but his career was far shorter than it should have. He suffered from a rare and serious kidney disorder that limited both his appearances as an All Black and, it’s now sadly apparent, his time on earth. His early death hasn’t come as a total surprise to those who knew of his illness, but it will have been mourned by millions of people around the world. Lomu was given exceptional sporting talents and far too short a time to exercise them. But he did more in his few years than most people could achieve in a dozen lifetimes. The tries he scored were fast, furious and utterly unforgettable, and the world of sport is now mourning perhaps the greatest player ever to set foot on a rugby field.

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