It was all about “ELEVEN.”
Paying respects to All Black great Jonah Lomu one last time, New Zealand held a memorial at Auckland’s Eden Park with thousands in attendance.
A Maori mourning chant echoed throughout the stadium on Monday as All Black legends Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, and several others carried the black casket carrying Lomu’s remains on their shoulders as they entered the field.
Spectators each waved black paper flags with a silver fern on one side and the No. 11 on the other. Lomu’s sons, Brayey and Dhyreille, had the number their father made famous as an All Black winger on their backs.
Lomu’s storied career was cut short by a chronic kidney disease. He passed away unexpectedly at his Auckland home this month at age 40.
Eden Park was a happy hunting ground for him, who appeared in six Tests at the field and won five of them. On Monday, it was turned into a place of final goodbyes and paying of respects for the rugby great.
The ceremony, to be followed by a private funeral on Tuesday, was aired live by all major television networks in New Zealand where Lomu was greatly admired and put on a pedestal.
A crowd of about 8,000 trooped to New Zealand’s most famous rugby ground to celebrate the short life of the world’s most known rugby player.
Such was Lomu’s worldwide stardom that condolences poured in from people outside of the sport, they include Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, soccer icon David Beckham, and Hollywood star Morgan Freeman.
Former New Zealand coach John Hart said there was no better place to bid Lomu goodbye.
“We’ve chosen Eden Park because it’s the spiritual home of rugby and somewhere that Jonah loved so much,” he said.
World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset flew in from France to pay his respects to the man he said helped elevate rugby into the professional era.
“He’s an icon in rugby and I have to represent all the fans that Jonah had in the world,” shared Lapasset. “This fantastic man delivered a very great message about rugby to the world.”
Lomu’s casket was carried from the stage, as it had arrived, to the sound of kapa haka and karanga (traditional calls) from the ground and the stands. A hearse inched him towards the exit, taking Jonah Lomu along the Eden Park touchline for one last time.
Students from Lomu’s primary school, Favona, performed a touching tribute song to the former pupil.