DEVASTATED staff and students inspired by Jonah Lomu have paid tribute to the rugby legend following his sudden death.

Youngsters at Ballard School in New Milton met the New Zealand rugby star when he visited the school last month.

Ballard School's David Dunn, former director of Bournemouth Rugby Club said the world had lost a "great character and a lovely man".

Speaking to the Daily Echo yesterday, Mr Dunn, also a former England Schools coach, said: "He was a very good friend of our school and has visited us before. He was close to some of our parents and I knew him through my own rugby connections.

"He was an inspirational man, not only in the rugby world where his achievements speak for themselves, but also as an inspirational person in his own right.

"He spoke to our children and did so from the heart. He told them that to get to his level, it took an incredible amount of hard work and dedication.

"He showed them it was the kind of thing they would be able to achieve."

Lomu, who won 63 caps for the All Blacks, had suffered from health problems since his retirement from the international game in 2002 due to a rare kidney disease.

Mr Dunn added: "He was managing the condition well; as far as I was aware, there was no cause for concern.

"He will be very, very sorely missed."

Alastair Reid, headmaster, added: "We flew the New Zealand flag at half-mast out of respect and also remembered him in our senior assembly today.

"Jonah visited Ballard a few weeks ago having responded to an invitation from Ballard parents and staff who knew him well.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."

Mark Smith, chief executive of Naomi House and Jacksplace said: "News of Jonah’s passing has shocked and saddened everyone here at Naomi House and Jacksplace.

"His relationship with our charity was a relatively new one, yet he had a deep understanding of our work and brought many smiles to the faces of children, young people and families cared for at our hospices.

"He was a tremendous ambassador and a true sporting legend. Our thoughts are with his wonderful family at this difficult time."

The rugby star had also visited Bournemouth over the years, as a childhood friend of Funky Sushi owner Isi Tuivai, himself the former Tonga rugby captain.