Almanac Rugby League – New Book Promotion: Patrick Skene’s ‘The Big O: the life and times of Olsen Filipaina’

Patrick Skene is an old friend of The Footy Almanac. This Thursday (May 28) sees the Australian release of his new book The Big O: the life and times of Olsen Filipaina’ (Auckland: Upstart Press, 2020). The Almanac is pleased to offer its support to Patrick and asked him to tell the story behind the book. It’s quite a journey.

 

 

 

In 2014 I began writing stories for Guardian Australia on the ‘invisible people’ of Australian sport – migrant, indigenous, LGBTI, and remote and regional sportspeople whose stories and impact had not been fully explored and brought to light.

 

I had completed my writing apprenticeship with the Footy Almanac under John Harms and was ready to ‘leave home’. At the Guardian I wrote a number of stories on wonderful people including Cecil Ramalli – the first Asian and Aboriginal Wallaby, Ian Roberts – the first elite gay rugby league star to come out while playing, and the Auburn Giants Muslim women’s Australian Rules Football team.

 

They were all enthusiastically welcomed but none more than the story of Maori-Samoan rugby league player Olsen Filipaina.  Olsen was a cult hero and the Balmain and Kiwis legend paved the way for the influx of Pacific and Maori players who now make up 48% of the NRL.

 

I believe that a country is its history – the sum of its stories. Not a cherry-picked narrative that suits one group. For me, that there was not a book on Olsen Filipaina and his legacy was a crime against the cultural memories of Australia, New Zealand and rugby league. A storyteller needs a story and a story needs a storyteller. In that spirit, I approached Olsen and offered him a 50:50 partnership in a book. If the book got traction he would get a nice earn before he retired, a kind of ‘testimonial year’ windfall, a belated replacement for the one he should have been given 35 years ago if the rugby league gods were fair and just.

 

Olsen could not understand why, almost 40 years later, someone wanted to write a book about him. He was also naturally distrustful of Australian media after experiencing their fickle wrath in his playing days. After discussion with his family he warily agreed to partner in the project. After an introduction to the University of Queensland Press (UQP), they agreed to sign on as publisher. In addition to documenting Olsen’s life, I had a central challenge – to unlock the great mystery of why there is a perception that Olsen performed at a higher level for New Zealand than he did for his NSW Clubs – Balmain, Easts and Norths – a perception which earned him the label of ‘enigma’.

 

The label never sat easily with me. As a youth, I remember watching Olsen from the Leichhardt Oval hill and being mesmerised by his attack and defence, his composed manner and, of course, his flashing smile. Opposing players would swarm and double-team him, creating opportunities for other teammates. For me, the ‘enigma’ narrative was unfair and suffocating, and did not align with my memories.

 

Like an old school detective I set out on a slog to solve the case.  Nothing would be off limits and I would try to be all things – even-handed and critical with the detached analytical rigour of the historian combined with the novelist’s depth and compassion for character strengths and failings. By writing a ‘Life and Times’ biography, I aimed to provide the historical context for his impact and legacy. Stripped of historical and cultural context for me, it’s just another story.

 

I travelled to locations far and wide, read over 100 (or relevant parts of) books, endlessly skulked in libraries, interviewed key people relentlessly, and slowly the connections formed, my synapses unlocked new angles and an extraordinary story unfolded before my eyes.

 

It’s a wild journey from the humblest beginnings born under a cabbage tree in Awarua, a Maori ‘reservation’ three hours north of Auckland, to the tough love of Mangere in South Auckland, to making the big leap by submitting to the centrifugal pull of playing in Sydney, to testing himself against the best in the world for his beloved Kiwis.

 

In his book Hero With a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell shared the results of his study into the hero myths and stories of 250 ancient cultures and found a common narrative spine in the hero stories. He called it ‘The Hero’s Journey’. As part of my preparation, I mapped Olsen’s journey against Joseph Campbell’s hero archetype and it fit perfectly. The reluctant hero heeds the call to adventure, crosses the threshold, faces the road of trials and survives with the aid of mentors, recomposes, slays the dragon and returns to the tribe with the magic elixir.

 

Like his great Polynesian navigator forebears who set off on journeys without a compass, a humble, shy and brilliant Pasifika hero stepped forward reluctantly to make improve his family’s life and set off a chain of actions that would make him a central figure in changing rugby league history and culture.

 

The NSWRL competition he arrived in was hostile to outsiders, a cultural humidicrib still in the sunset of a 75-year-old White Australia policy. He played some good football for the Balmain Tigers but his life unravelled from homesickness, bullying, racism, depression, cultural incompetence and the general terror of exclusion. The racism, in particular, led to emotional stone bruises that remain today.

 

Before Olsen left New Zealand, he promised his mother he would not ruin the reputation of Maori/Polynesians by fighting and brawling. This promise not to fight would be sorely tested as opposition players and teammates physically and verbally abused him to the point of deep depression. But he didn’t give in and showed great resilience, and there was a real nobility in not giving up. This book ensures his suffering and courage are honoured.

 

****

 

The ‘Big O’ story hinges on the 1985 Test series, dubbed the ‘world championship’, with Olsen and Wally Lewis central actors in a great historical drama. Plucked from Reserve Grade, Olsen had a sense of destiny riding with him and put on one of the great masterclasses in international rugby league featuring brute force and fearless improvisation.

 

I loved researching and meeting Kiwis coach Graham Lowe who, for me, is the greatest coach in rugby league history and the lock and key of the story. Lowe revolutionized NZ rugby league with his imperious Otahuhu Leopards, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Australian rugby league history with Brisbane Norths, turned Wigan into the biggest English powerhouse, won a crucial State of Origin series for Queensland, and was doing great things with Manly before he was hospitalised with life-threatening health crises. His is an unmatched global rugby league resumé and he is a man for all conditions.

 

His use of empathy, love, vulnerability, cultural competence and personalised man management to get the best out of Pasifika and unfashionable players remains legendary. For Lowe, the Australian monoculture created predictability and, with tenacity of purpose and an unobscured vision, he was able to break the Kiwis 14-year home losing streak against the Kangaroos at their beloved Carlaw Park.

 

It’s hard to write about a place unless I inhabit it, so I travelled everywhere for this book – Olsen’s marae in Kaikohe, Mangere East, Queen Street Auckland, Lang Park, the old Carlaw Park, Leichhardt Oval, Ryde, Samoan and Maori hotspots and even Olsen’s garbage truck. I trust my words because I’ve grounded them with a foundation of experience.

 

****

 

After 12 months of blood, sweat and tears I submitted a draft to UQP. UQP loved the ‘cultural shift’ component of the Pacific Revolution and asked for a rewrite – a direction change to focus more on the ‘Pacific Revolution’ and create a reference book documenting the Pacific Rugby league story and include Olsen as one of 10 pioneers. After a discussion with Olsen, we agreed to part ways with UQP as amicably and respectfully as possible. We were not asked to return our advances and were wished well on our travels. For me, Olsen’s story was too big, too pivotal and too important to be confined to a bit player in the larger story.

 

After a period of flux and a few rejections, we pitched to Upstart Press, a New Zealand publisher, and its sports book guru, Warren Adler, who has been responsible for more than 300 books in a long and distinguished career. Olsen was a personal hero of his and he liked the draft. Upstart is run by Kevin Chapman, the doyen of the New Zealand publishing. He liked it as well.

 

The book went from being an ‘Australian published book with a New Zealand secondary market’ to a ‘New Zealand published book with an Australian secondary market’. It was a shift in mentality that took digesting but it was good to bring Olsen’s story home and be given the benefits of Upstart Press’ combined wisdom and market knowledge.

 

Different editors reviewed the manuscript, including line-by-line editors, Maori advisors and rugby league editors/fact checkers. Images were selected and secured.  The cover was designed – a thrilling black and white ode to the Kiwis – elegance in simplicity. Book launch events were organised on both sides of the Tasman, including an imperious 300 person launch in Auckland in Mangere East Leagues Club. It was perfect. Olsen would return to his spiritual headquarters and all of his friends, fans, family and teammates would celebrate a legend.

 

After the Auckland launch, we planned a two week road trip, taking Olsen out to the people in a series of book launches kicking off in Kaikohe, Olsen’s mother’s home town, hosted by the Kaikohe Lions Rugby League Club of which Olsen is now the proud patron. After Kaikohe, and with a documentary team in tow, we were to take Olsen on a tour of New Zealand’s rugby league colonies including Whangarei, Hamilton, Taranaki, Rotorua, Wellington, West Coast and Christchurch.

 

In Sydney there was a 4-city tour planned – the new Polynesian growth area of Ipswich, Brisbane and a hopeful reunion with Wally Lewis, Sydney at Leichhardt Town Hall, and Melbourne with smaller events with his old clubs  Norths, Balmain, Manly Vale. Separately, we were working with community leaders to host Samoan and Maori community events.

 

All were crushed by COVID19. Olsen, who has immune system issues and suffers from Lupus for which he must take 14 ‘oral chemotherapy’ pills a day, was and is terrified by coronavirus. But he soldiers on.

 

As part of the promotional campaign for the book, he has given what I think are beautiful interviews on both sides of the ditch including my favourites with ABC’s Andrew Moore and Newstalk’s Martin Devlin. He is happy and reflective and now finally somewhat comfortable that his story is being told. And I have enjoyed telling his story, especially to Cooper Cronk, Nathan Hindmarsh and Hannah Hollis on Foxsports with my COVID bunker beard in full bloom. I’ve also been able to stretch my storytelling legs a little bit more on two wonderful ‘thinking man’s’ rugby league podcasts – The Progressive Rugby League Podcast and Rugby Reloaded with the grandmaster of rugby league and union history, Tony Collins.

 

In two days, the first phase of the journey comes to an end. After two delayed launches because of COVID-19, on May 28, 2020 the book will finally be released in Australia. Hopefully we will see the virus off and then it’s time to gather together through rugby league. Our ‘human to human’ launches will be an even greater celebration of Olsen, rugby league and the Pacific and Maori peoples who are using rugby league to climb back to greatness.

 

****

 

A book of this complexity needs to serve many masters and my reviewers have fed back a variety of key takeaways on the essence of the book and Olsen’s journey. For the romantics, it’s a love story. For rugby league fans, it is a mystery solved or at least explained. For coaches, it is as a ‘Moneyball’ guide wrapped in story form for coaches to get the best out of Pasifika players.

 

For the self-improvement cohort, it is about the power of cultural competence and customised man management.  For the emotionally intelligent, it’s a living breathing story of the power of empathy and vulnerability. The story is all that and more. For the Pasifika and Maori people, it’s a story that needs to be told, of a cartographer of an unknown world. Their modern day Kupe, Maui or Moana.

 

Rugby League has given dignity, hope and meaning for the Maori and Pasifika people and in return they have fundamentally changed the social fabric of rugby league. Olsen foreshadowed the Pacific revolution and this book is the story of the Pacific phenomena through Olsen, a key player in its genesis.

 

And when people ask me why I wrote the book or why they should buy the book, I give them one of the following 6 answers:

 

  1. It’s a great story that explores themes bigger than itself: Racism, Cultural dislocation and collision, Empathy, Love, Cultural competence, Resilience, Depression, Homesickness.

 

  1. It’s a great drama with a sweeping narrative, a magnetic lead character and an extraordinary cast of characters including Sir Graham Lowe, Sir Peter Leitch, Wally Lewis and David Lange.

 

  1. Olsen resonates – living proof that a man can climb out of the depths of hell and rise to the top – and his best was better than anyone else’s best at an incredibly competitive time in rugby league history.

 

  1. The formalising of his story elevates and respects a true Pasifika hero. This book takes Olsen out of the oral tradition– from uncles talking about him at parties – and permanently marks his story. It aligns with a deep cultural tradition of respecting ancestor achievements.

 

  1. I witnessed something others need to hear about. To this day his memory casts a long shadow and the ‘Galloping garbo’ represents the essence of rugby league.

 

  1. It was a story yearning for its own freedom and I have set it free.

 

I am honoured to add Olsen’s story and voice to history and this book gives his deeds the permanence they so richly deserve.

 

The final words are those of modern day storyteller and documentary maker Ken Burns: “the best history is the place where so-called ordinary people exist.”

 

Selected Excerpts:

 

The Pacific community is now a central part of the NRL, and it is difficult to imagine a time when they were racially vilified or their style ridiculed. Thirty years ago, one man helped change that perception with a display of rugby league that announced the arrival of the Polynesian power game.

 

Olsen Filipaina was the first Polynesian playmaker to cross the Tasman for the televised era of rugby league. He was the first big hitting player that also had the skills of a little man. His speed and balance gave him unique power and, combined with big thighs and a love of physical contact, he was the full package.

 

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. I just love the guy.’

 

British rugby league historian Tony Collins remembers Olsen Filipaina and his role as a ground-breaker. ‘Beneath the big, game changing personal decisions that have shaped rugby league are thousands of small decisions that also changed the game. We forget that people from working-class communities like South Auckland didn’t really travel the world until recently. In England they would go to Blackpool or Scarborough by the seaside for their holidays and would only go abroad if they were in the armed forces. Rugby league gave people like Olsen a chance to travel and see the world and change the game, but he had to take the leap of faith into the unknown.’

 

* * * * *

Author, journalist and Kiwis and Warriors media manager Richard Becht has seen it all in New Zealand rugby league. He started covering the game for the Auckland Star at the age of 18 in 1973 and the sport has never left his blood.

 

In addition to reporting on the game as a journalist for 45 years, Becht has authored nine rugby league books including those on Sir Graham Lowe, Gary Freeman, Dean Bell, Tawera Nikau, Stacey Jones and Ruben Wiki.

 

For Becht, Olsen’s legacy will be etched in stone for as long as the game is played. Becht first acknowledges Olsen’s role as a Pacific community pioneer: ‘He was a trailblazer for the Polynesians. He carried the torch and really came bursting through. Not just as a tough ball carrier but as a skilful playmaker and a destructive creator-provider. I was privileged to see him play a lot and saw the impact he had on the Pacific community.

 

‘Enigma was often used to describe Olsen in Australia and it’s a shit word — it was code for “they couldn’t figure him out”,’ says Becht.

 

‘They looked at him in a different light. He had a quality they couldn’t fit into their system. They just didn’t know how to use him, and he didn’t conform to their norm, wasn’t one size fits all.’

 

* * * * *

Although some Australians viewed Olsen as an unsolvable mystery, there was nothing mysterious about him for the bruised and downtrodden Pasifika communities of New Zealand. For them Olsen Filipaina was an articulation of their truth — what it was to be a Pasifika man.

 

Entertaining, tough and humble. Their ancient Polynesian stories were crumbling and devalued in their new western world and Olsen’s transplanted South Auckland Pasifika people needed a new story.

 

Olsen stepped up and became their first hero. Through his example, their identity would not be erased but celebrated, their buoyant playing style encouraged not suffocated.

 

The road he chose was one of resilience and non-violence and taking it all with a smile, regardless of the internal damage. He built the foundation brick by brick and although coaches tried to ‘cure’ him of his true and natural exuberance, he would not be bowed.

 

Olsen left the enveloping warmth of the Polynesian capital of South Auckland and dropped into an intolerant Australian monoculture that for 80 years had been exposed to one set of ideas and people, hardwired by intergenerational experience.

 

He battled hateful discrimination from players and fans and showed up and played at grounds that on some days were a treacherous swamp of racists, spewing their vulgar babble about him and his people.

 

By his very presence Olsen was a disruptor — a vanguard, and to understand his story is to understand rugby league’s Pacific Revolution.

 

Official website: http://www.TheBigO.Kiwi

@Patrick_Skene

 

The Big O will be released in Australia on Thursday 28 May and will be available in all good bookshops. RRP $39.99. A review of Patrick’s book will appear on the Almanac site next Tuesday, June 2.

 

To read more of Patrick Skene’s Almanac contributions, click HERE.

 

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 Patrick Skene

An Epicurean Celt interested in Sport, Culture & History.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this very thorough introduction to your book, Patrick. The whole ‘Pacific Revolution’ notion his one that the code will have to take on board increasingly as that Polynesian participation rate continues to grow. The excerpts set the scene well. Good luck with sales, etc once it’s released on Thursday.

  2. Congrats to you and Olsen and the publisher Patrick. I’m looking forward to reading this for many reasons and really getting to know and understand Olsen. You make Graham Lowe sound very interesting as well. All the best with thee release on May 28.

Leave a Comment

*