How Kiwi Roo-slayers walked into history

By Daniel Gilhooly

Olsen Filipaina remembers the scene clearly, sitting in the New Zealand team’s bus as it pulled over at the bottom end of Queen St, which 35 years ago was still the country’s most bustling stretch of road.

It was was two days before the third and final Test against Australia at Carlaw Park, the same venue where the Kiwis had suffered a gutting 10-6 loss the previous Sunday.

Filipaina and his teammates had struggled to shake off the pain of John Ribot’s dagger late try.

It had clinched another series for the Kangaroos, after an equally intense 26-20 opening win at Lang Park for Wally Lewis’s star-stacked team.

All week, Kiwis coach Graham Lowe had tried everything to lift his men for the dead rubber.

But balls were dropped at training. Heads were down.

Filipaina was among those who wondered if Lowe was losing his marbles when he directed the bus driver into a busy CBD and asked his players to disembark.

“He told us to walk down Queen St and back up again,” Filipaina told AAP.

“We were like ‘no, this is not happening’.

“We’d lost the series and we thought everyone would hate us. So no one moved.

“Lowey lost it and said ‘get the f*** out of the bus’.”

The reaction of shoppers and business people was something Filipaina still remembers.

Rather than shun the sheepish players, the public showered them with calls of support and pats on the backs as a pied-piper mentality took hold.

“They were following us, even though we’d lost,” Filipaina said.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that, none of us had.

“It’s amazing because we were fully against doing it.”

Lowe’s masterstroke instilled an unshakeable sense of self-belief and Filipaina was almost unsurprised by what followed.

The Kiwis, featuring only a handful of players familiar to the Australian league fraternity, produced a memorable 18-0 shutout that instantly made some players household names.

Mark Graham and Kurt Sorenson led a fierce pack display.

However, it was the magic of unheralded halves Clayton Friend and Filipaina and the sight of prop Kevin Tamati ripping off his jersey in a post-match haka that seared themselves into iconic Kiwi sporting imagery.

Mullet-haired tearaway Friend was the Auckland meat worker who zipped in for two of their three tries while Filipaina cut the bemused visitors open with a varied kicking game, blending it with his tackle-busting exploits from the first two Tests.

In the space of three games, Filipaina entered league folklore as the chunky playmaker plucked from reserve grade who outplayed the legendary Lewis before returning home to resume his Sydney rubbish collection run.

Filipaina, who has just brought up 40 straight years “on the bins” in West Ryde, said Carlaw Park sits among his fondest memories.

To him, it also marked twin turning points – in both Kiwi sport and international rugby league.

Unfettered celebrations and the earlier scenes on Queen St were signs of a changing tide in New Zealand.

The 13-man game was making inroads on its 15-a-side counterpart, with rugby union mired in acrimony over the merits of the All Blacks touring South Africa.

“Rugby had always ruled back home but for some reason that (league) series captured everyone’s imagination,” Filipaina said.

“Even talking to a lot of ex-All Blacks, it was amazing how they all watched it and how it was covered, which was unheard of until that ’85 series.

“And nobody in Australia gave us a hope.

“They thought they’d just just run away with it because they were so used to doing it but now there was a team who could go toe-to-toe.”

Interest in the series exploded after the infamous sideline fight between Tamati and Australian prop Greg Dowling as both players were headed to the sin bin during the first Test.

Such raw rivalry opened eyes and minds in Australia, according to Filipaina.

That and the sight of a team comprising players of mostly Maori and Pacific Island heritage holding their own against superstars like Lewis, Brett Kenny and Steve Roach.

Filipaina feels that it laid the foundation for the proliferation of ethnic minorities in the NRL.

And for the 62-year-old, the series had intense personal meaning as his Sydney career had stuttered until that point.

“I’d been over since 1980 and copped a lot of racism,” he said.

“I set myself a goal, to outplay the best that they had over here but I found myself in reserve grade more than I wanted.

“It was Lowey who had the faith in me, which meant everything. He told me not to hold back.

“I thought I outplayed Wally and at the same time kept the fans entertained.

“That’s what made it for me.”

Australian Associated Press