Racism Slur Taints Aussie League
Image : Editorial.

A book is to be published to mark the 40th anniversary of the Mangere East Rugby League Club. League legend , Olsen Filipaina , speaks openly about his early days playing for the Hawks, Olsen also talks about the move from south Auckland to Sydney which left him so homesick he nearly quit and the racism he says mars the sport.

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The Warriors eyes light up when Olsen Filipaina walks into the lounge of their Sydney hotel. Mad Butcher Peter Leitch is conducting proceedings.

"It's the greatest Kiwi ever to pull on the black and white jersey," he screams.

Jeez, that's the Butch for you, thinks Olsen. Same old Butch.

Olsen is proud to be meeting the Warriors before their ill-fated game against the Parramatta Eels.

"It's good to see so many Polynesians in the side, it's a dream come true for me," he says. "I always knew the potential was there."

Olsen played 50 games for the Kiwis, including 29 tests. He was one of the first high profile Kiwis to pick up a lucrative contract with a Sydney team during the Winfield Cup, playing for Balmain, Eastern Suburbs and North Sydney from 1980 to 86.

In 1978, he was the New Zealand player of the year and moved to Australia with a big reputation, earnt playing for Mangere, Auckland and the Kiwis. He was a household name not only in the working class suburbs of south Auckland.

Phil Gifford wrote in the NZ Listener May 1979: "Filipaina, only 21, has already established himself as a great player in the code - one who, if he was playing union, would have the sort of national following Bruce Robertson or Bryan Williams does in the All Blacks. League experts can find no weakness in the skills of Filipaina.

"A man of average height he is exceptionally strong, especially in the thighs, enabling him to hold off tacklers and make sure he gets a pass away to team-mates. His most spectacular attribute is the ability to bump off an apparently solid tackle with his shoulder, if the tackle is high, or hip if it's low..."

And his alter ego Loosehead Len was enticed away from Eden Park to watch Big Olly perform against the Poms at Carlaw Park. He wrote in his Saturday column:

"I've said in the past this Olsen Filipaina is about as dangerous as foolin' around with your local traffic cop's missus. By the way he bowled them Chooms over today was more fun than the Ma-in-law with lockjaw."

The players nicknamed him "Archie" after Archie Bumper because of his ability to bowl bigger opponents with ball in hand. And when he left us for Australia the fans lamented his loss at home.

The 8 O'clock reported in March 1980: "Wanted - a superstar to enthral the crowds, and the sub-heading Who will replace Olsen?

Meanwhile, in Australia Olsen was hiding in his clubroom's loo. The Daily Mirror reported 21 March 1980: "Balmain's star import, Kiwi centre Olsen Filipaina, suffers badly from camera shyness.

"A television crew tried to film him in the dressing room at Leichardt on Friday, shortly before the Balmain-St George game.

"The big fella shielded his face and politely told the cameraman to push off. They refused.

"Filipaina quickly moved to another part of the dressing room, hotly pursued by the TV crew. Finally, Filipaina locked himself in the loo, ignoring all appeals to come out.

"Only when he was assured the cameras had gone would he open the door."

We've never really seen another rugby league player like Olsen Filipaina. He was a complete footballer and entertainer who got the Carlaw Park crowds cheering on their feet. Had he played rugby, there is no doubt he would have been revered in the same manner as All Blacks Bryan Williams and Bruce Robertson.

In his book, Lowe and Behold, Graham Lowe says Olsen was an out and out game breaker. "He's a very gifted footballer who has explosive power and speed over the first few metres backed up by defence characteristics which can only be described as granite-like. Only two years ago, a survey rated him the hardest player to tackle in Sydney and the second hardest tackler - and that was a poll taken among Sydney players."

A gap was left when he moved to Sydney's Balmain Winfield Cup club in 1979 - and there has been nothing like him since.

Olsen Filipaina confronted Australia's Balmain rugby league bosses the morning after a particularly hard pre-season training run.

"Look," he said. "I want to go home, no-one trains this hard to play league."

Their mouths dropped to the floor, Olsen remembers. "But we've already paid you your money," they said.

Olsen Filipaina was the world's most sought after rugby league player when he was snapped up by the Balmain club. It was 1979 and Olsen had crossed the Tasman with a big reputation - not only in New Zealand but Australia, where he had toured.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on 17 October 1979 "Coup for Tigers in Filipaina signing. An easing of rugby league's international transfer ban should give Balmain club the biggest coup of the 1979-80 season."

And in the Daily Mirror on 11 February 1980 Jack Gibson named Filipaina as one of the 12 most valuable footballers for the year ahead.

But after that first training run he was ready to call it quits. The 21-year-old Kiwi centre had completed the infamous Bay time-trial around Leichardt past the rowing clubs - a virtual 10km sprint where backs had to finish ahead of forwards.

In typical Australia fashion, a group of 10 players caught taxis half-way around the course and told Olsen there was no room for him.

He was staggered back at the training grounds to hear what his fresh-faced Balmain team-mates had said.

'The Kiwi boy is catching taxis to outsmart the coach'.

"I had always loved league playing for Mangere, then I got here," he says. "I couldn't get used to what the Aussies would do just to get in the team."

Worse was to come.

"We were supposed to be playing hold but every time I got the ball I had all these reserve grade players hitting me as hard as they could.

"One training session this guy busted my sternum but I was expected to play in the Saturday game -and I did."

Then there was the name calling and verbal attacks on the playing field.

"They'd always be trying to upset my game." he says.

It's still happening today: "I don't know why they're like that," Olsen says.

Despite the antics, Olsen stayed in Australia playing for Balmain (3 years), Eastern Suburbs (2 years), and North Sydney (3 years) until the end of his career but there was always the pressure - and not only from the coach.

"I remember Wayne Pearce saying to me 'You can do this, it's up to you to win the game'. But I wasn't the only man in the team and I used to think what about the others."

Being a target in Sydney made him more determined to beat the Aussies on the international playing field.

"I don't know what it is but the New Zealand crowd used to lift me.

"The crowd made me special. I loved entertaining the New Zealand crowds. And when I put the black and white jersey on, it used to bring out the best in me.

"My son was watching some of my old test videos the other day and the commentators were screaming my first name. The crowd was on its feet cheering and my son said 'they really loved you Dad'."

His best test series came in 1985 against the Australians when Olsen outplayed Australian legend Wally Lewis at Carlaw Park.

"Everything turned to gold for me. Wally Lewis was hailed as the world's best standoff and I made him look very, very ordinary."

But it was a double-edged sword. The Kiwis lost 10-6 when John Ribot scored in the dying seconds of the game.

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