Islanders are playing a starring role in the NRL. Andrew Stevenson goes back through the generations to trace their rugby league heritage.
Israel Folau might be the greatest, FuiFui MoiMoi the strongest, Willie Mason the loudest, Jarryd Hayne the flashiest and Sonny Bill Williams the furthest away. What none of them can claim to be, no matter their prodigious talents, is the first.
"Polys", or Islanders, have transformed rugby league in Australia in the past decade. Every dressing room has players who trace their family history to the islands of the Pacific, most particularly Samoa, Tonga and Maoris from New Zealand, injecting their own particular brand of physicality and passion into rugby league. No team in the NRL this season will play without someone from the Pacific in their squad; some teams will name up to seven players in their 17.
To find the first Islander/Polynesian player in Sydney you have to travel back through the mists of rugby league time, way back to 1923 when, according to football historian Ian Heads, St George signed Brownie Paki for a season after seeing him play for the 1922 Maori side. "He came to Sydney on a steamer and was the first outsider specifically imported to the Sydney competition," said Heads.
Next in line, Heads cites Walter Muffing, a winger, again with St George in the 1940s, with a background among the cane-cutting communities of far North Queensland. Newspapers described him as an immensely popular player who "does not care how many tacklers come at him" - a description that rings true down the years when one watches Folau in full-flight.
Paki and Muffing came and went with no one much to follow them. So, too, the Fijian brothers, Apisai and Inosi Toga, who played in the red V in the late 1960s and 1970s. Apisai died tragically, after collapsing at training in 1973 with tetanus poisoning.
The trickle was starting. Probably the first Samoan-born player was Oscar Danielson, a tough, ball-playing forward in the Arthur Beetson mould who played three seasons with Newtown from 1970-72. Danielson came from New Zealand on a contract worth $4000 a year. It was good money then; not by today's standards. "I was only a $1 man; now they're $1million men," he said with a wry laugh.
Why he came was easy and the answer, just like the description of Muffing, remains largely unchanged for so many Polynesian players. "In my life I was always a footballer," he said.
The words could almost spring from the mouth of Andrew and David Fifita, Toyota Cup Tigers and nephews of both St George star John Fifita and footballer-boxer Solomon Haumono. An NRL spot, said Andrew with passion, "is what I've been waiting for my whole life. Even now, we're only one step away, you feel so proud. Even if it was only one game and you sat on the bench it would be such a great feeling."
Or Dane Sorensen, of Tongan and Danish background, who arrived at Sydney airport in 1977 in mismatched thongs, with a suitcase and a surfboard. "I never thought of failure. I knew I had to succeed because I had nothing else. It was a great opportunity but I knew it was my destiny; it was the natural thing for me to do," he said.
Sorensen, followed to Cronulla by his rampaging brother Kurt, didn't feel like a pioneer. "I felt nothing. All I felt was how hot it was. But really there wasn't time to think," said Sorensen, who still lives in the Shire. "You were just too busy playing every week and training." And surviving in a tough school. Danielson doesn't recount racist abuse, just hard men. "In those days we copped stick everywhere. We'd cop everything and when we copped one we'd cop them," he said. "It was survival in the paddock."
Said Sorensen: "It was the best time for rugby league - when men were men and when you got knocked out you got knocked out."
Polynesian players have never been scared about mixing it. It's the way they're raised, said David Fifita. "Dad [Sione] didn't tell us much, just to hit them hard and run straight. He always said 'if you get smashed, get up and do it again'. All the Poly dads are the same," he explained.
Few football fans realised the island origins of many of these players, who were generally regarded as Kiwis. Olsen Filipaina, who played with Balmain, East and Norths between 1980-86, and Fred Ah Kuoi, at Norths for 1981-82, were both of Samoan descent.
Ah Kuoi, now a Pastor at Phoenix First Assembly of God Church in Arizona, inspired others to follow him, notably Nigel Vagana, now an NRL player welfare officer and a leading figure among Polynesian players. "They were great idols for us, they gave us something to aspire to," said Vagana of those who came before.
Ah Kuoi was the standout, though. "He grew up a few streets away and his brothers were still playing at the same club in Auckland," recalled Vagana. "Then when he retired he came back to the club and coached and I was in one of the teams that he coached. Having him coach me as a 16- or 17-year-old, with all his experience, was a major turning point in my career.
"He showed us how to be professional, what professional means, what sort of standards and training is required. For us to be able to see that put us on the right path."
Filipaina, renowned for his forceful play, held nothing back when he told The Sun-Herald three years ago racism had ruined league for him. "When I came here in 1980 there were very few Polynesians playing in the Winfield Cup and the way people treated me was unbelievable," he said.
Now Polynesians are everywhere, although that hasn't stilled the racist tongues, according to the Fifita brothers, who believe spectators have more to say than opposing players.
"I was playing in the country [in Griffith] the last two years and I copped it heaps, monkey this, monkey that and black …" said Andrew.
David said the brothers, who are twins, have two responses. "We just keep giving it to the other team, trying to put them off their game. And we do what our mum told us: 'just blow them a kiss'."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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