‘Ten feet tall and bulletproof’: how Olsen Filipaina impressed the great Wally Lewis | Patrick Skene | Sport

On a crisp afternoon on Sunday, 30 June 1985, the Kiwis players erupted onto Carlaw Park for the second Test against the Kangaroos and were greeted by a thunderous roar from a packed house.

As the players lined up for the ceremonies, awaiting them in the centre of the ground was New Zealand’s highest-profile rugby league fan, Prime Minister David Lange. Lange had attended many rugby league games at Carlaw Park and was there to greet and inspire his beloved Kiwis.

Kiwis captain Mark Graham made the player introductions. When he reached a beaming Olsen Filipaina, Lange leaned forward to shake his hand and said with a big smile in front of the TV camera: “It’s my old mate from Māngere.”

Lange and Filipaina, both alumni of Ōtāhuhu College in Auckland, had travelled wildly different journeys. Yet here they were, in the middle of a sold out Carlaw Park, two pioneers of the new progressive New Zealand.

Filipaina grinned widely, enjoying the brief moment of familiarity and recognition, and then returned his focus to Wally Lewis. His eyes were clear and steadfast, and he crackled with energy and restrained menace. Bouncing with anticipation, his superpowers were about to be activated in his black and white costume. Wally was now in his house.

From the moment Graham returned Mal Meninga’s kick-off with fire, until the 79th minute, the Kiwis physically dominated the Australians. They manhandled the Kangaroos in the traditional ‘softening up’ period, and then moved the ball thrillingly from one side of the field to the other, to tire out the Kangaroos forwards.

After 20 minutes, the Kiwis broke the Kangaroos’ line and James Leuluai finished off a brilliant 60-metre team try which prompted Australian commentator Darrell Eastlake to bellow: “That’s as good a try as you’ll see in a Test match.”

Just before the end of the first half, Filipaina went into beast mode and steamrolled Lewis to make a 30-metre break. Five minutes before half-time Filipaina made another line break which led to the first disallowed try in which Kevin Tamati gave a controversial final pass to Gary Prohm. Tamati says: “No way that was forward; they got off the hook.”

Prior to half-time, Eastlake’s match summary was gloomy for the Kangaroos: “The Australians are certainly not playing like the champions they are. The Kiwis are swarming them.”

By half-time, New Zealand led Australia six points to four and jogged off Carlaw Park with purpose. Filipaina says: “When we got to the change rooms, you could feel we had them. We had taken their best early and were now on top of them.”

Five minutes into the second half, Filipaina collected the ball from a scrum in the middle of the field and ran straight over Lewis, making a 30-metre break only to be pulled down 10 metres short of the tryline. A bemused Eastlake noted: “New Zealand have made more clean breaks than Australia. They look very, very dangerous, when they run it, especially Filipaina with those big legs of his, he can make breaks so easily.”

Co-commentator Ian Maurice added: “Olsen Filipaina has cut threads into the Australian defence. He’s having a whale of a match.”

Midway through the second half the Kiwis swept forward, and in his own half, Filipaina decided to chip the ball over the Australian defence. He regathered gracefully, brutally stomped over fullback Garry Jack, and passed to Dane O’Hara who put the ball over the tryline, only to be again disallowed by referee Julien Rascagneres.

O’Hara says: “Nothing surer than I scored that try. Watch the replays. I was clearly over the line and Mal then jolted the ball out. It was a disgraceful decision.”

Ignoring the traditional commentators’ code of neutrality, Maurice said of the reprieve: “We were lucky then.”

Olsen Filipaina

Olsen Filipaina in Sydney last month. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

With two minutes to go in the match, the camera panned to the Kiwis’ anxious coach Graham Lowe who commentator Eastlake concluded “is sensing victory”.

With just 90 seconds remaining, New Zealand was still leading 6-4. Then, without warning, Lewis clicked into gear and led a last-chance counter-attack. A brilliant long pass to Jack ended with John Ribot scoring the last-minute match-winning try.

To any fair-minded rugby league fan, Jack’s final pass looked clearly forward, but referee Rascagneres waved it through. It was the second time in two games that Ribot had won a Test match for Australia at the death.

For Ribot, the Kangaroos got out of jail. “I remember being swarmed by relieved Australian players, we couldn’t believe it,” Ribot recalls. “The Kiwis have a good argument to feel they were the better side. We were down and out but a few things went our way and Wally sniffed out a half chance.”

Lewis acknowledges the unfairness of the day. “Olsen and all of the Kiwis were robbed and deserved to feel insulted at losing that game. We got our arses kicked,” he says.

Filipaina had an imperious game, wreaking havoc on the Kangaroos with elusive sidesteps, brutal broken-field running, silky passes, demonically possessed tackling, energetic diving on loose balls and dexterous chip kicks.

Filipaina, wrote one reporter, “churned the Australian defence into a lunar landscape”.

Lewis, on the other hand, cut a forlorn figure.

The Kangaroos’ planning sessions under coach Terry Fearnley had covered the threat of Filipaina but to no avail. Lewis recalls the meetings: “I remember every pre-match discussion we used to talk about Olsen – try to make a plan to nullify his strength and power. Those plans didn’t work out that day.”

For Lewis, Filipaina’s power game was a new experience. “I remember Olsen was extremely powerful and strong and in that Kiwi jersey I was stunned that he was 10 feet tall and bulletproof. He was different to anything I had faced. In addition to his power he had every skill in the game and displayed it to the highest level.”

And, Lewis says, he wasn’t alone in the Kangaroos. “Ask any Australian player if they enjoyed playing against him and it’s a fairly simple answer.”

Olsen Filipaina

Olsen Filipaina, pictured on a garbage run in the Ryde area in 1980. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

After the final siren, Lewis slumped to his knees on the Carlaw Park turf in exhausted gratitude. Kiwis coach Lowe buried his head in his hands unable to process the nightmare that he had just witnessed.

His plans had worked, they had outplayed the Australians, but they hadn’t got the win. Carlaw Park was deathly silent. The old ground, remembers Dean Bell, “had the air of a morgue”.

In the dressing room, Howie Tamati was physically sick and tears flowed freely among hard, working-class men. “We were shattered,” says Graham. “We just sat in the dressing room, not saying anything. . . with tears running down our cheeks, all of us.”

Filipaina, who for the third Kiwis Test in a row had received the man of-the-match award, was numb. “I was in a daze from losing and was lucky not to cry on camera. It was so sad, so unfair. We had them. I just wanted to get away from the media into the change rooms and home as fast as I could. Everything me and the team had worked for had come to nothing in 60 seconds. We were shattered and it was half an hour before we got changed and out of the rooms.”

In a television moment that enraptured two nations, Lewis approached a teary Lowe outside the change rooms and hugged him for a long time. Lewis explains: “I went into the Kiwi dressing room and hugged Lowie after the game and he was bawling his eyes out. I felt uncomfortable winning that game, it didn’t feel right.”

Kangaroos winger and winning try-scorer Ribot says the second Test was even more intense than the first and Filipaina was the difference. “He dominated the game and you could see how comfortable and respected he was at Carlaw Park. He was just so hard to handle one-on-one.”

For Kangaroos centre Chris Close, Filipaina’s performance confirmed what he had learnt in the first Test. “Make no mistake, Olsen was the key to that game,” says Close.

“We got outplayed and we were in awe of Olsen just like his own teammates were. We were fans of the game and became instant Olsen fans and I remember talking to Wally and us both saying we wanted to play against him and watch him. So competitive, such flair, so strong and such pace in his first strides with a real determination and identifiable pride.”

For New Zealand journalists like John Coffey, Filipaina’s dominance of Lewis was not a surprise and justified the New Zealand media’s mocking of Winfield Cup clubs’ treatment of their Kiwi players.

Coffey wrote in the New Zealand Rugby League Annual: “Filipaina far surpassed King Wally Lewis, illustrating how ludicrous is his rating as a reserve grader in Sydney. It is fair to say that no player has ever charged through Lewis’ tackles as contemptuously as did Filipaina. He pushed him off at will.”

Some moments in sport go to a place that never fades and Lowe says he’ll never forget Filipaina in that game. “He reverted back to playing for Māngere East Hawks – he was home and comfortable. It looked like he had the ball on a string.”

The enduring memory for Lowe, however, was what Filipaina did off the field in the change room filled with broken men. “The chieftain in Olsen came out,” he says. “He sat with the young ones, told them stories, got them laughing and we started believing again. He’s exactly the sort of man you need when the chips are down. A real asset in our darkest hour.”

  • This an edited extract from The Big O: The Life And Times of Olsen Filipaina – Pacific Revolution Pioneer, by Patrick Skene, available in bookstores or online.

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