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“The Big O” Review

Rugby league biographies come in all shapes and sizes but, like its subject, surely none has ever had the unique form of Patrick Skene’s new biography of Olsen Filipaina “The Big O”.

Although Skene follows the usual chronological format, this book is as much a unique social and cultural history as it is the story of a man who was a tremendous player. Filipaina’s rise from the most humble of origins to local, national and then international fame are charted alongside his personal challenges.

The story of his career in Sydney is one of triumph mixed in with conflict, although not the physical contact this Polynesian wrecking ball could have inflicted if not bound by his pledge of passivity to his beloved mother.

Criticised by Sydney media and coaches as lazy or enigmatic, closer examination shows that he was always switched on for coaches who showed him personal understanding but was sometimes disengaged from those who were culturally incompetent and used a “one size fits all” approach.

This book shows the conflict between the old and the new, the free spirit and the authoritarian structures, cultural conformity and pluralism, New Zealand and Australia, black and white.

There is also an undercurrent of friction throughout the story and the racism that existed in Australia, and by extension was part of rugby league, is on full and ugly display.

But it also contrasts with the modern game where the likes of Pasifika stars Benji Marshall and Jason Taumalolo are rightfully revered and shows how far the sport and nation have come in the years since, with a large slice of the current NRL player base proudly embracing their Polynesian or indigenous Australian heritage.

Olsen’s glory days at local and first grade level are recorded but special place is reserved for his international triumphs, most notably for the Kiwis tussles against Australia in 1985 when New Zealand won all three Tests everywhere except the scoreboard and Filipaina was named Man of the Series when opposing the Immortal Wally Lewis.

Travelling a new road is never easy but this book, lovingly crafted, shows why Olsen Filipaina is still a name that resonates with all rugby league fans. Those that don’t know his story will be amazed and those who saw him will be warmed by the memories of a great player who was a pioneer for Pasifika people.

“The Big O”  blends the personal story of Olsen Filipaina with that of the game in New Zealand and Australia at the time and shows why he enjoys so much respect, from all those who know him in the rugby league community  but even moreso in the wider Pasifika diaspora.

Patrick Skene has done a wonderful job in telling a marvellous story that needed to be told in both Australia and New Zealand, but also for all those who care for the game, its heritage and its future.

On sale from May 28, “The Big O” is also available via the website