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Farewell to legends

Monday 28 February 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Other Sports, Sports

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Farewell to legends
New Zealand Sevens player Joeli Vidiri at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. PHOTO: RNZ/22022711

As we got ready for another weekend of Super Rugby last week, sad news filtered through of the passing of another Pasifika legend, writes Jamie Wall of RNZ.

A fortnight after Olsen Filipaina’s death, Vai’aga Tuigamala following him at only 52 has come as a serious shock to the rugby and league communities. Both men were blockbusting crowd-pullers in their own ways, with ‘Inga the Winger’ leaving his mark not only on the field, but also in New Zealand popular culture.

Amid the many tributes flowing for Tuigamala, one observation was constant. The Auckland, All Black, Manu Samoa and Wigan player’s massive smile is what stuck most in his teammates’ memories, which was in sharp contrast to his devastating way of playing.

It was that grin that got Tuigamala a couple of memorable starring roles in NZ Dairy Board ‘Say Cheese’ ads in the early ‘90s, one at the height of his All Black fame and another after his shock switch to English rugby league.

After 19 tests for the All Blacks between 1989 and 1993, Tuigamala spent the best years of his career in the 13-man code, in an exceptional Wigan side that won three First Division titles and a World Club Challenge.

After 102 appearances, he was named in Wigan’s team of the decade, alongside the likes of Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards. Tuigamala was able to switch back and represent Manu Samoa at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, due to rugby’s essentially non-existent eligibility laws at the time.

All Blacks winger Va'inga Tuigamala against a World XV in 1992 Photo: PHOTOSPORT

In fact, Manu Samoa’s game against Japan at that tournament featured no fewer than five former All Blacks across both teams, a talking point that's come full circle in recent times.

Tuigamala can be seen as a prototype for Jonah Lomu, another Pasifika player who passed away at a tragically young age. The mark he left on both codes is an indelible one.

Then, late last week as the Crusaders and Highlanders battled it out in Dunedin, word came through of the loss of another colossal figure. Joeli Vidiri, the flying winger of the late 90s, gone at only 48.

‘Cult hero’ doesn’t really do Vidiri’s status justice. The man was a part of a phenomenal Blues side that won the first two Super 12 titles in 1996 and ‘97, a side that could lay claim to being the most powerful domestic side ever assembled.

Vidiri’s contribution to those titles was a staggering 20 tries, he ended up with 47 in his Super Rugby career that spanned 64 appearances.

But perhaps his finest hour was for his Counties-Manukau side that went so close to capturing a maiden NPC title in 1997. Vidiri scored a stunning hat-trick in their semi-final win over Waikato, as Counties roared home from a 37-15 deficit with 20 minutes to go to win 43-40.

His All Black career was brief, only two tests in the forgettable 1998 season. He has the peculiar feat of having scored both for and against the All Blacks as he dotted down while representing New Zealand A against them in 1999. But Vidiri’s fandom remained strong despite not really getting the international limelight he deserved.

He forged a partnership with Lomu that made the two synonymous with Super 12 and NPC success, but sadly they shared something else in common too. The kidney disease that claimed Lomu’s life was what ultimately took Vidiri as well.

It’s shocking to realise how many Pasifika players of that era are now gone: Lomu was 40 when he passed, Dylan Mika 45, Sione Lauaki only 36.

Yesterday will be remembered as an intensely sad one for New Zealand rugby. Va’aiga Tuigamala and Joeli Vidiri were true legends, in an era when rugby players seemed larger than life.

They will live on as memories of a simpler time. One of baggy cotton jerseys, freewheeling gameplans and huge crowds on the Eden Park terrace basking in the afternoon sunshine, watching Inga’s Auckland and Joeli’s Blues play some of the greatest rugby ever.