07 Apr The Forgotten Story of the Olsen Filipaina, the Polynesian who tamed Wally Lewis
How the reserve-grade playing garbage collector, with the help of his mum, schooled an Australian legend in one of Kiwi rugby league’s greatest moments
One of the most dynamic changes to the game of rugby league has been the “Polynisation” of the sport; growth has been so rapid at junior levels that in the NRL now 35% of players are of Pacific background. The Polynesian community is woven into the fabric of the game and it is difficult to imagine a time when Polynesian players were racially vilified and ridiculed for not being good enough. Thirty years ago one man in particular helped change that perception with a display of rugby league that announced the arrival of the Polynesian power game.
“Olsen Filipaina was a pathfinder. The first to show what Polynesians could do,” says Graham Lowe, former New Zealand, Queensland, Manly and Wigan coach. “Olsen was the face of hope for many Polynesians who were disadvantaged by lack of opportunity. I just love the guy.”
The “Big O” was born in 1957 and raised in the South Auckland suburban badlands of Mangere East, a league heartland, the son of a Maori mother and Samoan boxer father. Celebrating his 58th birthday at a Greek tavern in Sydney, he looks fit and has the measured gravitas of a man with nothing to prove. “Back then there were gangs in Mangere and it was kind of a Samoan ghetto,” he says as he chews a lamb chop, a glint in his eye. “But we had rugby league and a loving family and that was enough.”
Filipaina has just finished his Ryde Council garbage collection shift, the same garbage run he has famously done for 35 years. “I remember the early days in summer on the trucks, I worked so hard once I got my weight under 14 stone and I couldn’t play, I couldn’t break the line,” he says. From a young age playing for Mangere East Hawks, breaking the line was Filipaina’s thing. His speed and balance gave him unique power and combined with big thighs and a love of physical contact he was the full package. His playing contracts were all done on a handshake. His first was a hamburger and Fanta per game in Under-14 level. Later, it was a case of beer for the Mangere East Hawks A-Grade.
“There is no nicer, more humble, more respectful guy. I love him like a son”
Sir Peter Leitch
But man cannot live on beer alone and with the blessing of his mother Sissie, Filipaina accepted an offer to cross the Tasman to join the Balmain Tigers in the fabled Winfield Cup. Filipaina had been the star of the New Zealand tour of Australia in 1978 but rejected the offers of Winfield Cup clubs, unimpressed with Sydney; “It’s too fast, and everyone’s in a hurry to go nowhere,” he jokes. At 8am the day after his arrival, Filipaina sat on the steps of Balmain Leagues Club devastated and homesick. “I’ll never forget 5 January 1980 and my first day training. The Leichhardt bay run was torture and it broke me. All we did was play touch football and ball work in New Zealand, no one trains this hard.”
He pleaded with Balmain to let him go home and offered to pay the airline ticket money. After they refused, he rang his mother who told him to stay put. And that was that. But staying where he was meant dealing with a hostile environment both on the field and at training with his club. There was a shortage of brotherly love at Balmain. He was homesick, missed his parents and endured heavy racism on the field. Diabolically, some of his team-mates at training would deliberately try to injure him and remove him from selection. At Cumberland Oval, the fans racially abused him and hit him with a full can of KB beer. “I wasn’t enjoying my league,” he says. “I was sick of the fans and players with their racism, my so called team-mates trying to hurt me. What for? You’re supposed to be a team and help each other out regardless.”
Darker undercurrents emerge of a time in rugby league when open racism was an acceptable part of culture. Olsen was amazed at Aboriginal team-mate Larry Corowa’s ability to take racism from the fans. “Larry was used to it, but it had never happened to me before in Auckland. Some fans didn’t know about Polynesians so I copped the same slurs as the Aboriginal players. I could have passed except for my big thighs!” he chuckles.
“It was shocking,” says Lowe, who saw the racism first hand. “Australia was ahead of us in rugby league professionalism but we were well ahead of them in social behaviour.” Filipaina explains why he never lashed out, never retaliated: “If I had punched someone and got sent off, people don’t care why. It would shame my parents and family name and as one of the first Polynesians, I didn’t want to give us a ‘troublemaker’ stereotype. If you called me ‘nigger’ or ‘black bastard’, I would take your number and if I don’t get you this game, I’ll wait the whole season and I’ll get you in the end.” His strategy was award winning. In 1981 and 1982 he was voted by the players as the hardest hitter and the hardest guy to tackle. Word soon got around that Filipaina was not a man to be messed with.
There is no madder rugby league fan than the Mad Butcher, Sir Peter Leitch, the official patron of New Zealand Rugby League and owner of the largest butchers chain in New Zealand. Leitch was heavily involved with Mangere East Club and saw Filipaina grow up through the junior ranks. “Olsen once gave me a trophy for helping him out, that’s the sort of guy he is.” says Leitch. “There is no nicer, more humble, more respectful guy. I love him like a son.” Leitch and many in New Zealand Rugby League were worried about Olsen going to Sydney, the chief concerns being the lack of Australian understanding of the Polynesian way of life that centre around parental authority and religion.
“Frank [Stanton, Balmain coach, Olsen’s first coach in Sydney] wasn’t a bad guy, but he was very hard on Olsen and to get the best out of him, he should have done it in a different way,” says Leitch. “Really, none of the Aussies could handle Polynesians and the difference in culture.” Olsen finished up at Balmain after four seasons featuring 77 games and 19 tries. He moved to Eastern Suburbs for the 1985 season where he languished in reserve grade.
In 1985 Sydney’s Winfield Cup was the global glamour competition and the overwhelming majority of players were of tough Anglo-Celtic stock with a sprinkling of Aboriginals, Kiwis and Southern European migrants from Greece and Italy. Internationally the barbarians were at the gate. In 1983, New Zealand’s pack of part timers had shocked Australia 19-12 at Lang Park, their first win over the Kangaroos in 15 games since 1971. The war clouds gathered for the Kangaroos-Kiwis 1985 series. The confident Kiwis were under the command of Lowe, and ready to challenge for supremacy.
The Kangaroos were headed by the king of Lang Park, Wally Lewis, a man voted the greatest of the century alongside New Zealand’s Mark Graham and England’s Ellery Hanley. His superstar team included all time greats Mal Meninga, Steve Roach and Wayne Pearce. The Kiwis had assembled a pack of part timers plucked from Brisbane, Auckland and England and some playing in the Winfield Cup. In a shock move ridiculed by the Australian media, the Kiwis had moved Filipaina, a reserve grade playing garbage collector, from the centres to five-eighth to mark Lewis.
Filipaina in his days playing for Balmain.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Filipaina in his days playing for Balmain. Photograph: Scanlens
“For Olsen to be playing reserves was a disgrace,” says Lowe. “I knew no matter how well he was playing in Sydney, I could bring it out. He was a superstar in Auckland and if I see it just once, I know it’s there and I’ve just got to find it.” Lowe had a secret weapon – cultural understanding. He says Australian coaches didn’t know how to deal with Polynesian players, and that they “didn’t understand family orientation, eye contact, religion and, very important, the expectations of family members”.
“Aussie coaches were in your face, talking a million miles an hour and would humiliate you in front of your team-mates,” says Filipaina. “Lowey was different, he did the little things that made you comfortable and trust him.” Prior to the decision to tactical switch, Lowe did something extraordinary. He called his secret weapon in Auckland; Olsen’s late mother Sissie. Lowe explained the challenges Olsen faced in Lewis and tried to get her buy in. “No coach will ever have as much power as a mother and she is the best judge of what he is capable of,” Lowe said explaining his strategy. “If Sissie had even the slightest doubt, I wouldn’t have shifted him.”
Sissie agreed and, according to Lowe issued a stern warning to convey to her son – “I’ll clip his ears if he doesn’t.” When Lowe informed Filipaina that he would mark Lewis, he added, “Your mother said you’re up to it.” Although Filipaina hadn’t played five-eighth since high school, he says it “made him believe”. Pre-game, Lowe gave Filipaina a stirring pep talk. “I said this is the dream that every child has, to play against the best,” remembers Lowe. “You are marking the best player in the world but I think you can get past him.”
Lowe’s Kiwis lost the first game at Lang Park 26-20 but Filipaina played like a man possessed, dominating Lewis in a spiteful encounter that featured ‘The Fight’ between Greg Dowling and Kevin Tamati, triggered by alleged racial slurs. There are few stronger instincts than territory and Filipaina humbled Lewis on his own ground. Filipaina accepted the man-of-the-match award and at the post-match function was snubbed by Lewis. “One of my main goals was to meet Wally, the State of Origin legend,” says Filipaina. “I tried to introduce myself and he pushed my hand away and made an enemy. I had beaten him on his own turf, all day I was in his face and he couldn’t do anything. Now my goal was to mutilate him in front of a Kiwi crowd.”
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Lowe explained the snub: “Wally has a lot of mana and was the most competitive person in the world. An impertinent reserve grader had just knocked him off his perch.” It drove Filipaina to raise the black flag in the second Test at home in Carlaw Park in Auckland. He crunched Lewis in defence, bumped and fended him off at will and ran straight over the top of him using what he laughingly calls “the Maori sidestep”. The Kiwis lost the game 10-6 in the last minute, but Filipaina again won man-of-the-match in a losing team.
Some moments in sport go to a place that never fades and Lowe says he’ll never forget Olsen in that game. “He reverted back to playing for Mangere East Hawks – he was home and comfortable. It looked like he had the ball on a string,” Lowe recalls. “Having been so dominant and lost, the boys were broken and the chieftain in Olsen came out. He sat with the young ones, told them stories, got them laughing and we started believing again.” In an event etched in New Zealand rugby league folklore, Lowe took his reluctant team to Queen Street in the heart of downtown Auckland. “They were so disappointed but when they got off the bus they were mobbed and showered in love by fans,” says Lowe. “By then end of Queen Street I knew we were going to give them a hiding.”
In the third Test a week later the Kiwis crushed the Australians 18-0 in a famous victory. Lewis must have been glad to see the end of the menacing Polynesian and the leg drive of his thighs, a legacy of strength from his ancestors, the great Polynesian navigators that paddled across the Pacific. Filipaina was named man-of-the-series. When people ask Lowe how he got the best out of Filipaina and the team he answers: “No magic wand. I just brought a sense of love to those boys.”
“We were happy,” Filipaina agrees: “It’s hard to explain the pride I had wearing that black and white New Zealand jersey.” The enduring moment for Lowe was Filipaina joining his mother on stage after the third Test and they cried together in joy. “All Olsen ever wanted to do was the best for all the coaches he has had, his family, friends and Samoan, Maori and New Zealand people,” says Lowe. “And he did it. He had been through so much and let it all out.”
“Perhaps the greatest compliment is that Olsen Filipaina was completely ignored by Wally Lewis in two autobiographies written about his career,” says John Coffey, a New Zealand rugby league historian. Filipaina and Lewis haven’t said a word since, not even at Anzac Test reunions. Feuds run deep and long in rugby league. Alexander the Great had the Afghans, Muhammad Ali had Ken Norton and Wally Lewis had Olsen Filipaina. In the history of the game, where does he sit – the man who outplayed the greatest? Duke Ellington loved to say his music was “beyond category”. Maybe that’s where we file the Big O.
As Filipaina leaves the restaurant, he says with a big smile: “I told them all back then. You don’t know who Polynesians are now but you will soon.”