Almanac Book Review – ‘The Big O: the life and times of Olsen Filipaina’ by Patrick Skene

 

 

The Big O: The life and Times of Olsen Filipaina (Auckland: Upstart Press, 2020) by Patrick Skene

 

I’ve followed rugby league for about 60 years and, over the decades, teams and players come and go, the game evolves for better or worse, and our memories of individuals and incidents are prone to become both a tad selective and a little blurred around the edges. We come to rely on the game’s historians, statisticians, commentators and journalists to provide us with accurate information and informed analysis to help us understand it all in the wider context.

 

With his first book, The Big O: The life and times of Olsen Filipaina, Patrick Skene attempts to help us understand one particular aspect of the game over the past 40 years, namely the increasing presence of Maori and Pasifika in the NRL over the past half century. From a mere handful of individuals in the decades leading up to the 1970s, the number of players of Polynesian ancestry has expanded to a point where, according to NRL statistics, they comprised 48 percent of registered players in 2017. Based on annual growth rates, this is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2027.

 

The critical figure in the dramatic rise of this ‘Pacific Revolution’, according to Skene, is Olsen Filipaina. To quote,

“Olsen Filipaina was the first Polynesian playmaker to cross the Tasman for the televised era of rugby league…He could play every position on the ground but was at his best in the thick of the action. And on his day, when he had a coach who knew how to motivate Pacific players, not even the best in the world could stop him.”

‘Olsen was a pathfinder. The first to show what Polynesians could do,’ says Sir Graham Lowe, former New Zealand, Queensland, Manly and Wigan coach. ‘Olsen was the face of hope for many Polynesians who were disadvantaged by lack of opportunity…’ “ (p. 22)

 

The central thesis of this book is that Filipaina’s experiences in rugby league encapsulated all that it meant to be Polynesian both for the good (social and cultural mores, the importance of family, the significance of and pride in community, the sheer pleasure of playing the game) and for the bad (economic struggle, racism, homesickness, the cultural insensitivity of many Anglo coaches). It’s a story of the naturally gifted one, revered among his own people and the majority of fans but misunderstood by the people (coaches) who were charged with using his footballing gifts so that he was labelled as lazy, enigmatic and an underachiever. Skene sets out to resolve this dichotomy.

 

There is considerable breadth and depth to Skene’s research which was carried out over a period of two years. A combined background of the mid-twentieth century cultural studies of Joseph Campbell and the more recent work of David Lakisa is central to Skene’s understanding of the Pasifika experience. They provide the context and basis for his understanding. His wide-ranging interviews with numerous identities within the code, in both New Zealand and Australia, add to the immediacy of his narrative.

 

Skene blends this context with a detailed narrative of the initial forays of Polynesian players into the NSWRL before launching into a detailed exposé of Olsen Filipaina’s life, from his modest childhood through his accelerated football progression as a schoolboy to the start of his senior career in Auckland before arriving in early 1980s Sydney. Filipaina is described as a ‘pathfinder’ and a ‘trailblazer’ for his Pasifika people and, doubtless, he was but, in Sydney, he encountered an in-grained, strongly Anglo-Celtic, racist, inflexible and self-absorbed rugby league culture that required every player, regardless of their background, to bend to its dictates. A gifted, creative ball-player like Filipaina didn’t fit the mould and so the challenges began. What followed was a long struggle to be accepted, understood and given opportunities to express his qualities on the field. It is not a pretty story but compelling to follow as Filipaina quickly became a crowd favourite on and off the field while he was poorly treated by coaches and players, including teammates, alike.

 

The pivotal point in Filipaina’s career came in the 1985 Test series against Australia. Chosen from Eastern Suburbs’ Reserve Grade as five-eighth for New Zealand, Olsen’s direct opponent was the man regarded as the best player in the world, Australia’s Wally Lewis. Under the coaching of Graham Lowe, New Zealand came within seconds of pulling off a mighty series upset, only to lose the opening two Tests to late tries to John Ribot in both games before going on to win the Third Test comfortably. Filipaina dominated Lewis for most of the series which led to claims of him being the ‘kingslayer’.

 

It is worth dwelling on this series for a moment. Under the astute people management and tactical acumen of Graham Lowe, the strongly Polynesian New Zealand team was about to come of age. They hoped to be more than just competitive in this series. They felt they were in with a chance. And they rocked the Australians with their physicality and their skills. The first two Tests were nail-biters. Filipaina dominated both matches and nullified Lewis’ impact. However, it needs to be remembered that in the final seconds of the Second Test, with Australia trailing by two points and Lewis badly beaten on the day, it was that same Wally Lewis who instigated the final passage of play that saw Ribot race away to score and break Kiwi hearts both on and off the field. Given the total context, only a champion can do that. Lewis may have been beaten overall on the day but he was not defeated or slain. Filipaina was a deserved player of the series but Australia, under Lewis, were still unofficial world champions.

 

Skene goes into considerable detail about the role of a few key individuals in Filipaina’s career. Graham Lowe is the hero, a white man who possessed the insight and understanding to appreciate Polynesian players, Filipaina in particular, and was able to harness and bring out the very best in them. Skene ranks Lowe as the best rugby league coach ever. He builds a strong case. Frank Stanton, Filipaina’s coach at different clubs, emerges as the villain, an inflexible, unappreciative and dismissive character who limited Filipaina’s First Grade career. It’s a withering critique. Readers can make up their own minds. Wally Lewis and his place in the game is respected and, at one point, Skene draws several soundly-based comparisons between the two men. But the book is about Filipaina and so he holds centre stage.

 

It is easy to point to at least half a dozen strengths in this volume. It’s explanation of the cultural context of Pasifika players is a central and important theme – Skene nails it!; this leads to the implications for coaches and their use of Polynesian players within the structural confines of the NRL – if you don’t understand and appreciate these men for who and what they are, you won’t get the best out of them; Skene achieves his goal of ‘explaining Olsen Filipaina’ and we exit from the book in a far better place to evaluate his place in the code in both New Zealand and Australia; the breadth and depth of research is impressive; Skene skilfully blends context, timelines and narrative; his style is very accessible.

 

The book’s weaknesses are few and comparatively minor. While it is incontestable that Filipaina showed great strength of character and resilience to overcome so many major challenges placed in his path, Skene’s portrait is, perhaps, a little less than ‘warts and all’. Secondly, interviews with a veritable host of personnel involved with Filipaina leads to some repetition in their responses and evaluations. It’s partly group-speak within the code, it’s partly less than efficient editing. And, as argued earlier, the evaluation of the Second Test of 1985 is somewhat slanted to serve a wider purpose when a more nuanced appreciation might have found a better balance.

 

As rugby league moves into the 2020s, perhaps we might see more analysis of the place of Polynesian players in the code and how either those players are moulded to fit into the code’s systems and structures or how the code’s systems and structures are modified to take into account the cultural background of those players.

 

The Big O is an important addition to the literature of rugby league. Patrick Skene has provided us with a comprehensive and well-researched insight into ‘the Pacific Revolution’ as well as an illuminating portrait of the pivotal figure in its development, Olsen Filipaina. Aficionados of the code would do well to add it to their libraries.

 

Disclaimer: The writer of this review received an unsolicited advance copy of The Big O in the post. This review is the initiative of the writer who has only limited, indirect knowledge of the book’s author.

 

@blenheimboy2

 


Patrick Skene and Olsen Filipaina

 

About the author: Patrick Skene was born and raised in Sydney and writes stories on the intersection of sport, history and culture. His work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Age, Boxing.com and The Footy Almanac. He has also contributed to Aboriginal sports history through the NIRS and a boxing programme on SEN Radio Melbourne. He is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of CulturalPulse, a Sydney-based entity which ‘celebrates Australia’s positive multicultural achievement through stories and events’.

 

The Big O was released on 28 May and is available from all good bookstores. Order also directly from the website www.thebigo.kiwi  RRP $39.99

 

Ian Hauser is rugby league editor at The Footy Almanac. A retired teacher and now a freelance editor, Ian has followed rugby league for 60 years. He is also an avid cricket fan.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

 

About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A Queenslander through and through, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. I enjoy travel, good coffee and cake, reading, and have been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. As well as being one of Footy Almanac's online editors, I moonlight as an editor for hire - check me out at www.writerightediting.com.au

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