New Zealand remembers Jonah Lomu at memorial

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Media captionFormer Wesley College students performed a haka in memory of Jonah Lomu who went to the school

A public memorial for New Zealand rugby great Jonah Lomu, who died earlier this month at 40, has been held at Auckland's Eden Park stadium.

The former All Black was capped 63 times by his country and was considered one of rugby's first global superstars.

Thousands attended the service, which opened with a traditional Maori haka for Lomu, who was of Tongan descent.

He was diagnosed with a rare kidney condition in 1995, but the exact cause of death has not been established.

Doctors believe he died as a result of a blood clot that developed on the long flight back from the UK where he had recently been watching the Rugby World Cup with his wife and two young boys, reports the BBC's Jon Donnison in Eden Park.

Many of those at the memorial were from New Zealand's Pacific Island communities. A private family burial service will be held in Auckland on Tuesday.

At the scene: Jon Donnison, BBC News, Eden Park

This was a great send off for a great man. Perhaps not the attendance everyone was hoping for, but several thousand turned up at Eden Park to remember a legend of rugby union. The game's first global superstar.

The ceremony opened with a haka, performed in traditional warrior costume with spine tingling intensity. The crowd heard tributes from people ranging from Queen Elizabeth II to Elton John.

Dozens of former All Blacks were there to pay their respects, among them Grant Fox, who told me: "The scary thing with Jonah was he was performing with a debilitating illness. Imagine what he could have done if he was 100% healthy."

Former winger Eric Rush reduced the crowd to laughter and then tears as he addressed the gathering, remembering his dear friend.

It was a tough day for Jonah Lomu's wife Nadene, who did her best to comfort the couple's two young boys, Dyhreille and Brayley, both decked out in the famous number 11 shirt their father wore to such devastating effect.

The memorial opened with a haka, and powhiri welcome ritual. Jonah Lomu's coffin was then carried into the stadium by pallbearers, including several former All Blacks.

Lomu's wife Nadene followed, wearing a woven skirt - a traditional Tongan symbol of respect and mourning - accompanied by her two sons.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lomu's wife Nadene and two sons Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5, walk out onto Eden park
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Lomu was known for his deft ball-handling skills, superb balance and a sense of timing
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former All Blacks coach John Hart spoke on behalf of Lomu's wife and children, thanking mourners for their tributes

In an especially moving moment, pupils of Lomu's former school in South Auckland, Favona Primary, performed their own tribute song, calling the rugby giant "Number 11, our friend in heaven".

The tributes were led by World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset, who travelled from Paris for the memorial. He described Lomu 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," he said.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key recorded a video tribute in Paris, where he is attending the world climate conference.

"He proved that you can come from anywhere in New Zealand, in any background, and make it to the top,'' he said in the message.

Jonah Lomu fought a nearly two-decade battle with kidney illness, which former All Blacks coach John Hart recounted, saying "he was a fighter until the very end".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Former players Dallas Seymour (left) and Michael Jones greet one another with the Maori hongi after the memorial

His death did not only touch the rugby world, with footballer David Beckham and Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman also among those paying their condolences.

Lomu scored a record 15 tries at Rugby World Cups, eight of them in 1999 - also a record for most tries at a single tournament. Both records were only matched this year.

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