The NSWRL was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of New Zealand Test legend Olsen Filipaina, aged 64.
Affectionately known as the “Big O”, Filipaina blazed the trail for Maori and Pasifika players in Rugby League following stints at the Balmain Tigers, Eastern Suburbs Roosters and North Sydney Bears.
He had been admitted to hospital in January with a stomach infection and passed away after being placed into intensive care following kidney failure.
Born on 23 April 1957, Filipaina, the son of a Samoan heavyweight boxer, was one of five brothers to play for East Mangere Hawks in Auckland. He also had the distinction of being the first Hawks junior to represent New Zealand in 1977.
A burly centre or five-eighth, he spent five seasons at the Tigers where he scored 225 points before stints with the Roosters and the Bears. He worked as a garbage collector for Ryde Council and was given the nickname “The Galloping Garbo” for his fearless runs on the football field.
Filipaina reserved his best performances for the Kiwis and was named a NZRL Legend of League in 2007 after a decorated career that included 29 Tests from 1977-86 and 108 points.
His greatest performance came in 1985 when he was plucked from reserve grade by New Zealand coach Graham Lowe and led the Kiwis to an historic 18-0 win over the Kangaroos at Auckland’s Carlaw Park.
The Kangaroos were captained by Rugby League Immortal Wally Lewis and it was the first time they had been held scoreless in a Test in 29 years.
Filipaina would also represent his father’s country of birth, Western Samoa, in their inaugural Test match in 1988 and later captained Ryde-Eastwood to victory in the inaugural Metropolitan Cup competition in 1990.
Tributes flowed thick and fast for Filipaina, with former Balmain backrower Paul Sironen describing him as a “gentle soul”.
“I didn’t play a great deal with Olsen by the time I got to grade but I knew him on a personal level,” Sironen said.
“He had a lovely demeanour and was just a gentle soul off the field but when he pulled that Kiwi jersey on, he was pretty devastating.
“He had the Polynesian power base, and the Polynesian sidestep – straight over the top of you. He put those thighs to good you and ran over a fair few blokes in his time.
“He’ll be sadly missed.”
The New Zealand Rugby League issuing a statement to honour his contribution to the game.
“The Rugby League community in New Zealand and worldwide is mourning the loss of one of the Kiwis’ greatest and most unique players, a Pasifika and Maori sporting icon and a beloved character,” the statement said.
Balmain, North Sydney and Wests Tigers also issued statements mourning his loss.