Olsen bumps off racism over the Tasman

00:30, Jul 04 2010
Olsen Filipaina at the Body Pacifica exhibition.

Olsen Filipaina became a rugby league legend on both sides of the Tasman when he ran over the top of "King" Wally Lewis after being picked from Sydney's reserve grade for the Kiwis in the 1985 three-test confrontation.

But even a man-of-the-series performance didn't enable the powerhouse back to bump off racist taunts that soured his eight-year Australian professional career.

"Nearly every game I played, I faced racism. Things like nigger. F**k off back to New Zealand," Filipaina, 53, tells Sunday News at the opening of cultural festival Body Pacifica, at Sydney's Casula Powerhouse arts centre.

"My first instinct was forget about football and punch 'em. But you'd get sent off, you'd let your mates down, plus you're losing money.

"And if I had of done what I wanted to do, fight them one-on-one, I would have been giving Kiwis and Polynesians a bad name."

Fortunately for his red-neck abusers, Filipaina – son of a Samoan heavyweight boxer – kept his hands to himself.


Instead he buried them with crash tackles or monstered them with bulldozing front-on charges.

"My way of getting them back was, you've got 80 minutes to get the bloke who said it. There were little names and numbers in my head, and I'd slowly cross them off as I demolished them in a tackle or something.

"When it came to playing against Australia, that was another way of really giving it to them.

"If I still had a couple of blokes or a couple of numbers in my head, I couldn't wait to play the test match and just take it out on them."

Sydney-based Filipaina – who played for Balmain, the Roosters and North Sydney from 1980-87 – is passing on his lessons in how to respond to on-field racial sledging with a disciplined fury, to young Polynesian league and rugby players at clubs throughout the NSW capital.

Racism in sport across the Tasman reared its ugly head last month when Timana Tahu – who has a Maori father and Aboriginal mother – walked out of the New South Wales Origin camp after then-assistant coach Andrew Johns made a racial slur towards Queensland superstar Greg Inglis, a proud indigenous Australian.

Filipaina says while the issue is still there, he is now seeing, "light at the end of the tunnel. It's changed a hell of a lot since 1980 when I first came over. All we had then was the Sorensons [Kiwis hard men Kurt and Dane] and myself who were of Polynesian descent.

"The Polynesian influence here now is just unbelievable, from the junior sides to the top sides. The same in the Australian union sides. And look at soccer, you take Harry Kewell away, who's the top Australian soccer player? – Tim Cahill, a Samoan."

Filipaina, a star guest at Body Pacifica's opening night last Friday, said the three-day cultural festival signalled "a massive turning point for Australia".

"A lot of people will come down to the festival and hopefully learn a lot about Polynesians and their cultures and their ways."

Packed with hundreds of guests of all ethnicities, the festival opening night featured a combined Tongan and Samoan choir, welcome by an Aboriginal elder, dance by Miss Samoa using the Nifo oti [knife of death] and songs from Pacific reggae band Mutha Tribe.

The feel-good night was officially launched by NSW arts minister Virginia Judge, and featured a speech by Kiwis, NRL and Super League star-turned NRL welfare and education officer Nigel Vagana.

Vagana was one of the pin-ups in the NRL Body Pacifica calendar, also launched on the night.

The calendar featured current or past NRL players, including Ruben Wiki, Manu Vatuvei, Fuifui Moimoi, Roy Asotasi, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Frank Puletua.

Penrith forward Puletua was the calendar's graphic designer, and his artwork – celebrating the tatau (Samoan body art) – featured at the Body Pacifica festival.

All funds from the calendar, aimed at raising awareness among Australian-based Pacific Islanders about their cultures, will go to Pacific cultural programmes.

The calendar was conceived by Vagana, and Auckland-born Samoan Leo Tanoi – who played for Cronulla in the early 90s. Tanoi is creative producer for Pacific projects at Casula Powerhouse, in Sydney's south west.

Body Pacifica continued through last weekend with highlights including an Aboriginal smoking ceremony, Samoan umu workshop, kapa haka, Cook Islands and Tokelau dances and 100 Samoan full-body tattooed warriors.

Filipaina – who played 50 games, including 29 tests for the Kiwis – was delighted by the success of the three-day Polynesian festival.

"It's something that had to happen," he said. "It's really good to see the amount of people getting behind it, including myself. It's like a dream come true."

Sunday News