Rugby League: Olsen Filipaina pleased to battle through tough times for Polynesian players

Kiwis rugby league great Olsen Filipaina is happy to have endured the racist taunts of the 1980s to help spark the strong Polynesian growth in the sport nearly 40 years later.

Speaking to The AM Show about his biography, The Big O - The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina, the Samoan five-eighth admits that the abuse was tough to take, but he's glad he didn't pull the pin when times were tough. 

During Filipaina's career in the NSW Rugby League competition - now the NRL -  only 1.8 percent of players had Polynesian heritage. In 2020, nearly half the competition has some family connection to the Pacific Islands. 

But the game might not have so many Polynesians today if it wasn't for some of the obstacles Filipaina had to overcome during his career, best illustrated when his Balmain Tigers faced Parramatta Eels in 1981. 

During the match at Cumberland Oval, won 26-7 by the Eels, Filipaina was involved in an on-field scuffle with Parramatta hooker Paul Taylor. 

While the exchange was mostly 'handbags', Eels fans began throwing beer cans and hurling racial abuse towards Filipaina.

"I went back to my position and had beers thrown at me, and the crowd went crazy, calling me names like gorilla," he says. 

"I was shocked, because we just grappled. It did hurt, because I'd never had anything like that happen to me - we just grabbed each other.

Olsen Filipaina in action for the Kiwis.
Olsen Filipaina in action for the Kiwis. Photo credit: Getty

"Before I left New Zealand, I promised my mum not to hurt anyone or get in trouble. 

"Over the years, I got voted the hardest guy to tackle and the hardest hitter. I used my body to get back guys on the field who abused me, as it was the only way I could get back at them.

"I'm glad I stuck at it, because I wanted to go home, but the result of having so many Polynesians in the game now is like a dream come true." 

As well as tough times against opponents, Filipaina also met resistance from his own Balmain teammates, who were annoyed that the experienced NZ international had blocked their path to first grade.

"I just wanted to play rugby league. Everything you had to work for - you got a $200 bonus if you won, $100 if you lost.

"You had some of your teammates who tried to hurt you, so they could make the squad."

While the world was against him, the support of two very important people helped him push forward. 

"Graham Lowe was a great influence, because like my mum, he believed in me, and they believed in what I could do and that was an advantage for me." 

During his career, Filipaina worked emptying rubbish bins with Sydney's Ryde Council - a job he still holds to this day, aged 63.

Filipaina has advice to the NZ Warriors players currently isolated in Australia, preparing for the revamped NRL season. He says, when the competition resumes, they must play for their families. 

"They need to concentrate on why they are there. They're doing it for their families and they need to think that they're doing it for their families, which will go a long way." 

Filipaina played 103 games in the NSWRL, with stints at Balmain, Easterm Suburbs and North Sydney. In total, he logged 50 matches for the Kiwis, scoring 108 points in his 28 tests.

Rugby League: Olsen Filipaina pleased to battle through tough times for Polynesian players
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