Kiwis cult hero Olsen Filipaina has laid bare the prevalence of racism in Australian rugby league little more than a generation ago, in a book celebrating his career.
Filipaina recounts his struggles as a player of Pacific Island descent trying to make his way as a professional in the early 1980s, going into ugly detail at times in the “The Big O”, which goes on sale on Thursday.
Author Patrick Skene captures the cultural and social pulse of the time as the burly five-eighth rises from humble beginnings in South Auckland to star on the Test stage.
Regarded by many as a trailblazer for the growing tide of Pasifika players in the modern-day NRL, Filipaina recounts how his background then made him a target.
Racial taunting was at its most brazen during his four seasons at Balmain, whether he was playing in reserve grade or in the premier NSW Rugby League competition. Or even from teammates at training.
Also in the Tigers backline was Aboriginal winger Larry Corowa, who represented NSW and Australia and seemed to have found a way of absorbing racism, Filipaina noted in the book.
“Larry was used to it, but it had never happened to me before in Auckland.
“Some fans didn’t know about Polynesians so sometimes I copped the same slurs as the Aboriginal players. I could have passed for one except for my big thighs!”
Filipaina, now 63, said racism always felt different to other insults. To him it felt like disrespect to his family, both past and present.
“If you were to insult a white person’s mother, they would go crazy on you. But that’s exactly how I felt in a lot of matches when I was racially abused, often while pushing my head into the ground,” Filipaina said.
“I understand things happen in the heat of battle, but not that many times from that many people. At least one person saying sorry would have been nice.”
It was a far cry from the adulation felt by Filipaina during his career peak, the 1985 Test series against Australia where he famously outplayed opposite Wally Lewis.
New Zealand lost 2-1 but Filipaina was named man of the series, shortly before returning to his job as a garbageman in Sydney, a role he has held to this day.