Written by Stuart McLennan
Ideally, a biography will tell you a lot of stuff you don’t already know.
If it’s a ‘good read’ it will most likely surprise, educate and change your perspective. Patrick Skene’s The Big O – The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina does all that while celebrating the character and ability of one of the greats of rugby league.
In the early pages, we are transformed to life in the suburb of Mangere East, in South Auckland, where Olsen spent his formative years. A working-class environment that was tough, and characterised by gangs and rugby league. Fortunately, Olsen chose the latter and under the watchful eye of Peter Leitch, better known as the ‘Mad Butcher’, forged a stunning rugby league career that encompasses the Auckland competition, New South Wales Rugby League and the international stage.
The author, who works in cultural marketing, made a commitment to understanding Filipaina’s early life, going to the source and walking in Olsen’s shoes.
“I went over to South Auckland and immersed myself,” Skene revealed to Everything Rugby League. “I don’t think you can write about a place with authority without doing that.”
While Skene dives deeply into Olsen’s family background (Maori mother and Samoan father), his treatment at the hands of coaches, teammates, administrators and fans is a revelation.
We hark back to the ‘glory days’ of rugby league in the 80s when players still had jobs, (Olsen has been ‘on the bins’ for the past 40 years).
This was rugby league before well-being managers and coaches treating every player as an individual to get the best performance from their men.
In 2020 the Bennett’s, Robinson’s and Bellamy’s of the modern coaching world have a deeper understanding of the Pasifika culture attributed to around half of current NRL players.
Back in 1980 Filipaina made the trip across the ditch to test himself out in what proved to be an extremely hostile environment for a Polynesian. The author describes Olsen’s new ‘home’ in these terms. “Early 1980’s Sydney was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic city that was manifested by the working class game of rugby league.”
After joining Balmain, Olsen endured racism from fans, opposition players and even some members of his own team. Coach Frank Stanton ruled with an iron fist. It was a one size fits all approach with no understanding of, or allowances made, for the Polynesian culture.
“A lot of us haven’t felt that sting (as an outsider) and haven’t felt that sort of exclusion,” Skene said.
Skene believes Filipaina suffered depression for two or three years while in Sydney.
The author paints a picture of a shy and retiring man who was sensitive despite his physical toughness.
He recounts instances where Olsen conducted himself with dignity when not receiving the respect he deserved from others.
Filipaina was dropped to reserve grade numerous times during his Sydney career.
The demotions didn’t seem to correlate with his form. Fans and media put it down to a player that ran hot and cold according to his mood.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is that what I used to hear about Olsen’s career did not gel with what I saw,” Skene explained.
“Enigma was a word that was just thrown around everywhere. This is like a Sherlock Holmes type story that is evidenced based to show that Olsen was a better player in the Sydney league than he was given credit for.”
Opposition players of the same era heap praise on the Kiwi champion while expressing surprise and relief at the number of times he was dropped from first grade.
“Ask the players about Olsen, don’t ask the media who loved piling in on individual players,” Terry Lamb said. “They didn’t have to tackle Olsen or be tackled by him.”
Kiwi coach Sir Graham Lowe is a man that understood Filipaina’s personality and culture and consequently got the best out of him when playing for New Zealand.
The trademark bumping runs, soft skills and sledgehammer hits that lit up stadiums were never more apparent than when he was playing against Australia opposite Wally Lewis.
“In many ways, Olsen and Wally Lewis were the same prototype. Two guys that were the last of free spirits,” Skene said.
“Olsen was a hero of mine when I was young and used to go to Leichhardt Oval and watch rugby league.”
“Ultimately I want Olsen to be knighted in New Zealand and I want him to have a statue because he deserves it.”
The Big O – The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina is published by Upstart Press and available at www.thebigo.kiwi