Tributes have poured in from around the rugby league world after the passing of Kiwi legend Olsen Filipaina – the man regarded as a pioneer for Maori and Pasifika players in the game.
Filipaina, who played for Balmain, Eastern Suburbs and North Sydney, was a revered figure in the game and had been invited to Saturday night’s match between the Indigenous and Maori All Stars at CommBank Stadium before being admitted to Westmead Hospital last month with a stomach infection.
Members of the Maori squad had signed a jersey for him on Wednesday night.
Filipaina, 64, suffered kidney failure and was placed in intensive care before passing away on Thursday, surrounded by family.
Olsen Filipaina tribute
"To all our family and friends, it is with a heavy heart, that I inform you that Olsen passed away peacefully in hospital this afternoon,” Filipaina’s brother, Alf, said in a statement.
“He was a fighter and fought for 16 days in ICU but our heavenly father needed a stand-off for his rugby league team, and now he has the best.
“His family spoke to him every day to keep his spirits up and he is now reunited with mum, dad, younger brother Rae, and all our tupuna who are now looking after him with all their love.”
The Maori All Stars team will honour Filipaina in Saturday night’s match, while the IRL, NZRL, Balmain Tigers, North Sydney Bears all paid tribute to 'The Big O’.
"A huge loss for not only our club, but for the game of rugby league," the Tigers tweeted about the five-eighth great, who was a nemesis to Kangaroos rivals, including Immortal Wally Lewis.
The North Sydney Bears posted on Instagram: "The 'Big O' was a champion of rugby league both on the field and off, as he challenged racism in the game and spoke openly about the challenges he faced.
"Olsen played for the Bears in 1986 and 1987, and was a renowned Kiwi international. His famous toe kick, big smile and great sense of humour will be remembered by all".
The RLPA also paid tribute to Filipaina's legacy.
"The 'Big O' was a pioneer of New Zealand rugby league and helped lay the platform for so many others to follow in his footsteps," a statement said.
"Lovingly known as the ‘Galloping Garbo’, Olsen was one of the very first Polynesians to play in a premier Australian rugby league competition.
"All current and former players are enormously grateful for his contribution to the game and the path he carved out for Pasifika players will keep creating opportunities for many generations to come."
Filipaina's remarkable career and life was recently documented by Patrick Skene in the biography, 'The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina, Pacific Revolution Pioneer'.
While Filipaina was popular with fans of the Sydney clubs he played for, it was his match winning performances at Test level for New Zealand that he is so fondly remembered for.
Often his brilliance in a Kiwis jersey contrasted with Filipaina’s club form.
Born in Kaikohe to a Samoan father and Māori (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hāmoa) mother, Filipaina moved to South Auckland with his family as a young boy and rose through fledgling Mangere East’s ranks.
He made his Test debut just a month after his 20th birthday at the 1977 World Cup, selected at centre for the matches against Australia and Great Britain.
Filipaina also featured in Auckland’s remarkable ‘Grand Slam’ achievement, where the provincial side beat Australia, Great Britain and France in the space of 17 days.
Boasting remarkable pace and agility for a player with such an imposing frame, a trademark bump that rebuffed myriad defenders and a crafty kitbag of skills – included a phenomenal penchant for a chip-and-regather – Filipaina was an attacking freak.
Stadium-shaking defence somewhat belied his gentle, shy nature but completed the picture of one of the era’s great entertainers and game-breakers.
Despite being stuck in reserve grade at Balmain for several weeks midway through 1984, New Zealand coach Graham Lowe had no hesitation in picking Filipaina for the home series against Great Britain and playing five-eighth at Test level for the first time, the 27-year-old terrorised the Lions.
Another stint in reserve grade with the Roosters in 1985 set the scene for Filipaina’s finest hour.
He was man-of-the-match in the first two Tests against Australia in Sydney and Auckland – both won by the Kangaroos courtesy of last-gasp John Ribot tries – including a memorable try-assist and four-pointer of his own in the series opener.
Filipaina led a drought-breaking – and equally emphatic and iconic – defeat of Australia in the third Test, producing two audacious chip-and-chase efforts in the same set in the lead-up to Clayton Friend’s opening try.
After comprehensively outplaying opposite number and Australian captain Wally Lewis, widely regarded as the world’s best player at the time, for the third straight game in an 18-0 thumping, man-of-the-series honours were a mere formality for Filipaina.