Almanac Book Review – ‘The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina’ by Patrick Skene.




In his Acknowledgements Patrick Skene says ‘This book is a love letter to the Polynesian and Maori communities’. As a young boy he used to attend Leichhardt Oval and was blown away by the skills of Balmain’s New Zealand import, Olsen Filipaina, in the early 1980s. The son of a Tongan father and a Maori mother, Olsen Filipaina, a short stocky man with a low center of gravity and thighs the size of tree trunks combined speed and strength with flair and innovation. For Patrick Skene and many others, he was a breath of fresh air in taking on the robotic, mistake-free approach that characterised Rugby League in those years.


Sport is most interesting when it is not about sport, or when it provides a ‘window’ into issues other than sport. This is certainly the case with Patrick Skene’s biography of Olsen Filipaina. Its most valuable contribution is the knowledge it provides on Polynesian and Maori communities and norms and the contributions they have and are making to both New Zealand and Australia. Olsen Filipaina was not the first Pasifika player in Australian Rugby League, but he was the first one who played in a key creative position, at five-eighth, and dazzled crowds (but not always Australian coaches) with his flair. In the decades since Filipaina played there has been an increasing number of Pasifika players crossing the Tasman to strut their stuff in the National Rugby League. Skene reports that in 2018, Pasifika players constituted 48 per cent of Rugby League squads.


Skene sees Rugby League and its Pasifika players as being important in the transformation of New Zealand from a society based on the supposed superiority of Anglo-Celtics – or whites – to one which was more inclusive of its traditional Maori population and immigrants from various parts of Polynesia. Skene devotes two chapters to the 1985 Test Series between New Zealand and Australia were New Zealand’s mixed team of Pasifika and Anglo-Celtic players captivated the nation in an epic series, with a stunning victory in the Third Test. Skene sees this as a turning point in New Zealand’s move towards overcoming racial prejudice and a culture more accepting and embracing of difference and diversity. In more narrow sporting terms, Rugby League provided an example for Rugby Union, which helps explain the dominance of the All Blacks in recent decades.


Skene provides a warts and all account of Olsen Filipaina’s life and career and of Rugby League during the 1980s. The Big O was written in collaboration with Filipaina and does not shy away from discomforting information concerning his family. Details are provided on the differences between Western and Polynesian culture and how the misunderstanding of the latter by Australian coaches resulted in the talents of such players being wasted. Skene demonstrates that the most successful coaches have been those who have sought to understand that which drives players, both on and off the field, help them work through such problems and become not just better footballers but better human beings.


Skene also does not shy away from the constant racial abuse that Filipaina, other Polynesian and Aboriginal players experienced from the crowd (including their own supporters), opposition players and members of their own team. Filipaina did not respond to such abuse on the field due to his mother asking him not to do so, as ‘fighting’ would bring disgrace to the family. Though he did sort out one teammate behind the sheds who wouldn’t let up. A strength of Skene’s account is his hard scrabble approach to Rugby League in the 1980s. He provides information, some of it not that flattering, on major personalities of this era.


Olsen Filipaina’s legend is mainly based on his performance in the 1985 Test matches against Australia. He was plucked out of reserve grade when he was playing with Eastern Suburbs (his coach being the legendary Arthur Beetson) and lined up at five-eight against Wally Lewis, ‘the King’ and best player in the world. He took on and defeated the King, with both strength and power in defence and flair and speed in attack. Filipaina was highly respected by those he played with and against, and a mystery to most of his coaches who sought to reduce him to a robot as a battering ram. No one liked playing against him; he was too good.


Olsen Filipaina was/is a humble and generous man. He sacrificed much of his life for the benefit of his family, experienced unrelenting racism and loneliness during most of his playing career. He played the game with joy and loved entertaining crowds. It is worth watching him on YouTube to see what a dynamic player he was. The Big O provides valuable information on sport in both New Zealand and Australia during the 1970s and 1980s. It also highlights the increasing contribution of Pasifika players, especially in Rugby League in Australia, and the role of Olsen Filipaina in this process. He opened the door for others to follow and not only transformed the playing of Rugby League but also helped to transform New Zealand into a more tolerant and cohesive society. This is an important book.




Read more from Braham Dabscheck HERE and Patrick Skene HERE plus more on The Big O HERE.




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