South Africans mourn Lomu, the man they loved and feared

Former All Black star rugby player Jonah Lomu attends an award ceremony in Rome in a file photo.
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By Nick Said CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Jonah Lomu was an icon for New Zealand fans but also revered in South Africa where the winger's performances at the World Cup in 1995 wrote him into the country’s rugby folklore. Seen as a fearsome opponent on the field and the consummate gentleman off it, Lomu became a hero to many in South Africa where there is still strong support for the All Blacks over the Springboks among the black community. It is difficult to think of a sportsperson from outside of the country’s borders whose death, at the age of 40 after suffering for two decades with kidney disease, would receive such an outpouring of condolences. From government ministers, to the South African Rugby Union, players past and present, and fans, there is a deep sense of genuine sorrow at his passing. A player Lomu formed a special bond with in recent times is former Bok scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen, himself now confined to a wheelchair as he battles with a form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). One of the most repeated images of the World Cup final two decades ago, won 15-12 by South Africa, was of Van der Westhuizen tackling a rampaging Lomu as the All Black seemed destined to score a try. Bound by their shared fears for their respective futures due to poor health, their reunion earlier in 2015, filmed for the documentary ‘Jonah Lomu: Back to South Africa’, was an emotional one. “Promise me you’ll keep fighting because I will,” Lomu told Van der Westhuizen at its conclusion. “Difficult to write with eyes full of tears on my eye tracker. Thank you for everything, Jonah. RIP my dear friend!” Van der Westhuizen tweeted on Wednesday. Chester Williams, the only black member of the Bok squad in 1995 and a fellow wing, said facing Lomu was an honour and the greatest test for any South African. "He was a fearsome player, one of the greatest players of all time," Williams told South Africa’s ENCA news channel. "I was more excited to play against him than to be intimidated. "He was this big physical man on the field who would run you over, but off the field he was this gentle giant." Former Bok flyhalf Joel Stransky, who kicked the winning drop-goal in the 1995 World Cup final, echoed those sentiments. “Deeply saddened to hear of Jonah Lomu’s passing. Rugby's first true global icon and legend. A true gentleman and nice guy.” Current South Africa wing Bryan Habana, who equalled Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries at this year's tournament, said the All Black served as an inspiration. “His on-field fearlessness was matched by his off-field humility,” Habana wrote. "It was a privilege to have met you, to have been inspired by you and to watch you make the biggest impact we have ever seen on the game we love so dearly.” (editing by Justin Palmer; nick.said@thomsonreuters.com; +27832722948; Reuters Messaging: Reuters Messaging: nick.said.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

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