The Lomu Effect: How one man changed rugby union

On Wednesday 18th November, as we awoke to the news that All Blacks great Jonah Lomu had passed away, the first tribute I saw posted on Facebook was from my mum. She is not the slightest bit interested in sport yet, such was the impact of the legend of Lomu, had been moved enough to write a post on the great man. I suppose this could be described as the 'Lomu Effect'.I count myself lucky to have crossed paths a number of times with Jonah during his all-too-short life, with my first meeting arising when I was fortunate enough to attend a Hall of Fame dinner in London. Jonah was there in an immaculate suit and had an unmistakable aura, which increased my nervousness as I approached him to request an autograph. I shouldn't have been worried. He was so kind and had so much time for me.

About 15 years later, I came across Jonah again during Rugby World Cup 2015. He was still the warm, friendly guy I had first met as a youngster; a guy who had time for everyone. He still had that aura, something usually associated with football’s megastars. Following him around that day were his little boys, both wearing All Blacks shirts with 'Lomu 11' on the back. He had conquered the sporting world and had stood upon its summit; now he was focused on being a father, perhaps a tougher feat. It is this that is most tragic about his sudden passing.

Going back to his playing days, Lomu's emergence on the world stage swept away rugby's traditional style and heralded a new dawn. Simply put, he was a professional athlete playing an amateur game. He turned heads with his unique combination of athleticism, brute force and beautifully balanced running style. In one tournament he changed the sport forever, helping to boost the appeal of rugby worldwide.

There is no doubt the sport would eventually have gone professional, but Jonah helped accelerate the transition. The 'Lomu Effect' from the 1995 Rugby World Cup had people talking about the Kiwi giant in homes, pubs and workplaces around the world – attracting people who had never watched a game of rugby before.

Soon after the '95 RWC, the 'Lomu Effect' led Rupert Murdoch to enter into negotiations with SANZAR to secure the rights to the newly established Tri-Nations and Super 12, and in doing so helped launch rugby into the professional era. Lomu's former agent, Phil Kingsley-Jones, revealed that one of the key points raised in the negotiations was that Sky wanted to ensure Lomu would be playing for NZ as he was the blockbuster star who would drive audience figures. Lomu had offers from the NFL but, fortunately for rugby, he stayed put.It wasn't just on the pitch that Lomu saw success, as he also became the face of the sport off it. One of the first TV ads I can remember was for Pizza Hut, featuring Jonah and the Underwood brothers, poking fun at how the big man had swatted them away on the pitch.
Adidas further increased his legend with the iconic photo-shoot on the banks of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown (see above image) to promote the All Blacks kit. In 2008, they named him in their Hall of Fame, further cementing his legacy as the first global superstar of the sport. Codemasters even launched a computer game dedicated to the big man in 1997 - Jonah Lomu Rugby the first ever rugby union game - that reflected his status as one of the world's most marketable stars. Other players have since reached global superstar status in the game, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but no-one comes close to Jonah.He became bigger than rugby; bigger than sport even, and was elevated to a level reserved for the likes of Pele and Muhammad Ali. Brand Lomu continued to grow even when his playing days finished and this year, around RWC 2015, his fame was as strong as ever. The fact that news of his passing at the young age of 40 was a top story on all international news outlets, when so much else has been going on in the world, shows how big a deal he was.He was a man mountain on the pitch and a gentle giant off it. He changed rugby forever, showing how stars of the sport could promote the game outside of its traditional fan base. He was the perfect ambassador for rugby, the perfect ambassador for sport and the perfect ambassador for how to carry oneself through life.

The 'Lomu Effect' will live on.