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