Rugby League Heroes: Olsen Filipaina

A brilliant career blighted by racism

Roughly half of all today’s NRL players are of Maori or Pacific descent, but back in 1980, there were just four such four players, of which Olsen Filipaina was one.

Racially abused by opponents and crowds and treated badly by his coaches, Filipaina spent seven unhappy seasons with Balmain, Eastern Suburbs and North Sydney. But when he pulled on the Kiwi jumper, we saw the best of him, notably in 1985 when he outplayed the great Wally Lewis in all three Tests of an incredible trans-Tasman series.

Nicknamed the ‘Galloping Garbo’ due to his 40 years as a refuse collector, he still lives near Balmain. His biography, ‘The Big O’, was released last year.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

I’d choose not to play in Australia if I could have my time again. I was only getting a crate of beer in New Zealand or maybe 50 dollars, but I loved it. Carlaw Park was amazing, and the fans went crazy every time I got the ball. I wish the Auckland Warriors had come along 15 years earlier. That would have been amazing.

Who were the big influences on your career?

The Orchard brothers and Henry Tatana that played for the Kiwis in 1971. Then there was John Greengrass, who had a great reputation. Sir Peter Leitch and Graham Lowe, along with my mother, were all great influences on me as well. Graham was a great coach because he knew what I could do.

What do you remember of your New Zealand debut in the 1977 World Cup?

It was such a great reward for all my training and all the sacrifices my parents had put in. We lost to Australia and Great Britain, but we beat France. My debut was against Australia. I couldn’t believe I was there, seeing my black and white jersey on the hook. I was shaking with nerves, going to the toilet every few minutes. I got out there and the more I got involved the more I enjoyed it. We might not have beaten Great Britain and Australia in 1977, but we did beat them with the Auckland rep side.

Can you describe how different your club football was with Mangere East in New Zealand to what you experienced with Balmain?

The big difference was training. We played touch and always had the ball in our hands in New Zealand, but on my first day at Balmain, they had us doing long road runs which broke me. I wanted to play on instinct and what was in front of me – pass the ball in my own half or chip over the top – but it was taken away from me in Sydney. We just hit the ball up for five tackles. We were robots with no freedom. I’d signed a contract and had to do what I was told. They controlled me and I lost my freedom. But then if we were losing a game with 20 minutes left, all of a sudden it became, “Come on Olsen, try something. Get us out of this.”

Were there any periods in your Sydney career when you were happy?

I was happy at North Sydney for a while, playing with Clayton Friend and Mark Graham. We all got on so well together. But then Frank Stanton, who had made my life so miserable at Balmain, got the job and ruined everything, so I was back in reserve grade. After Balmain, I signed for the Roosters, but only for the money. I’d never seen so much cash and when they put it in a brown envelope for me, I couldn’t resist it. That was a mistake and I never settled there under Arthur Beetson.
I was unhappy for most of my playing career in Sydney. I actually stopped smoking and drinking when I retired from playing because suddenly there was no pressure on me. I smoked two packs a day as a player, but retiring from first grade in 1987 was such a weight off my shoulders.

Did Frank Stanton really not believe you had a knee injury at Balmain?

That’s right, he sent me to a psychiatrist instead of a physiotherapist! When I got there I didn’t realise. I was looking for the knee specialist, but I realised in the appointment Frank had set me up for a meeting with a psychiatrist. I was lost for words. We did 400-metre runs at Leichhardt Oval that night, and I just walked around because I had an injury the club weren’t treating properly.

How much racism did you encounter in Sydney?

Unfortunately there was a lot. It made me very angry at the time, but I’d promised my mother to never react. I wanted to hit first and ask questions later, but my mother explained that would bring shame on the family. So I didn’t know what to do. Opponents racially abused me. Fans threw cans at me and screamed ‘black bastard’ and ‘nigger’. I even kicked goals quickly with just two steps, so I didn’t have to listen to so much racist abuse. If I’d done what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have lasted a month. I had to just get on with it.

Was it really just the fear of flying that stopped you taking up a contract with an English club and which ones made you offers?

Hull and St Helens. Yes, exactly. I hated flying and I’m still the same now. In 1985, I tried to get out of the tour to the UK. I begged a letter from a knee specialist, but Lowey was too clever for me and made me get on the plane! I just got drunk at the airport and they put me on the plane on a wheelchair. It was the only way to get through the flight.

Sydney club coaches failed to get the best out of you. How much of that was down to what is referred to in your book as ‘cultural incompetence’?

It didn’t take long to realise they didn’t know how to handle someone who was different. Their way was to shout and shout. In New Zealand, they would take you to one side and explain something. In Australia, you’d just be humiliated in front of everybody. It was hard to adjust to. I felt constantly disrespected. You get more out of a player if you treat them well and don’t embarrass them.

Twice you could have signed for Jack Gibson. Do you regret not doing so?

Absolutely! It went back to money when Cronulla and Easts were after me and I went for the big bundle of cash that Easts put under my nose. I felt that I had to protect my family and take it. So I sacrificed being coached by Jack and I regret it so much.

How different did you feel when you pulled on the New Zealand jersey?

It was just the best feeling and completely different to what I was going through in Sydney. Take 1985 for example. I was in the reserves at Easts, and I was worried about the Test matches, but Lowey had no hesitation in picking me at five-eighth against the world’s best player, Wally Lewis. Pulling on the jersey was wonderful and I didn’t want to let my mother down.
I’d never met Wally personally, but I’d seen State of Origin and it was amazing. Wally was a genius, and I was his biggest fan. People in NSW hated him so much because he always produced something. I was so excited about meeting him after the first Test, but he brushed me off and pushed my hand away. That fired me up to dominate him again in the next two matches.
We played so well in the second Test at Carlaw Park, but we lost with 63 seconds to go. It was such a disappointment. We were all devastated in the changing rooms. Lowey was a genius and how he got our spirits back up was amazing. All our heads were down in training, so he rang a radio station to say all the players would walk up Queen Street in Auckland and it would be great if fans would come out and meet us. We got on the bus without knowing his plan and we thought the fans would be throwing things at us for losing. But when we got off the bus, we were treated like heroes. It was amazing. We knew then we would win the last game. We trained brilliantly after that and won the game 18-0. Clayton Friend scored twice. I was named player of the series having been man of the match in the first two. That series was my peak.

Do you think you embarrassed your club coaches with your Kiwi performances?

I think they probably were embarrassed because they couldn’t put their finger on why I could play so well. But they still didn’t manage to find the solutions. They didn’t talk to me. It was easier for them to take it out on me and put me in the reserves. I had a free rein with the Kiwis and that’s where my club coaches went wrong.

What were the other highlights of your Kiwi career?

We pushed the Australians really close in 1982 and lost 11-8. I then worked on the bins from 2am through until the morning. Then I went to watch Balmain but was told I was playing. Two games in 24 hours. I scored as well. I was sore that night!
Other than the flight, I enjoyed the tour of the UK in 1985. I roomed with Shane Cooper and was happy for him to do well because he was going to be my replacement. I was vice-captain and captained the side in the second Test at Wigan when Mark Graham was injured. I was really relaxed because I felt I had nothing to prove after getting the better of Wally Lewis. But to be honest, it probably affected my game a bit because I didn’t do as well as I could have done.

How has your biography been received?

It seems to have gone well and I’ve had a lot of media interest in it. Patrick Skene suggested we meet at a restaurant near me in Ryde that I could never afford to eat at. He said he’d pay and that convinced me to go!
As we ate, he said he wanted to write a book about me, and I just laughed. But he said it wouldn’t cost me anything, so I was happy to do it and it’s been great to get my story out. Some of my family have told me they had no idea what I was going through in Sydney. I’m still not used to the media work, but I’ve done loads since the book came out and for once, I’m enjoying it! It’s been a weight off my shoulders being able to talk about racism and other issues I faced.

* ‘The Big O’ is available at

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