Farewell Fats

The Autumn Internationals are well and truly underway which means we will soon be treated to a month of rugby before the All Blacks take a well-earned break over the summer. This time also marks the first anniversary of the release of The Rugby Blanket. My first tentative step into the world of epublishing. I must say it was a fun start but there is plenty more to write about and those of you who are fans of the fiction genres will be pleased to hear I have plenty waiting in the wings. Speaking of wings and flankers and front rowers…

This weekend Ireland face Samoa in their first test of the Autumn. Now Ireland have only once lost to Samoa so they will start as favourites and should prevail. However in the space of a few days, this match has taken on a new meaning. Samoan rugby have just lost a true legend and former captain – Peter ‘Fats’ Fatialofa. As a prop forward, Fatialofa represented Samoa, Auckland and my favourite rugby club in the whole world, Ponsonby.

R.I.P. Fats (Samoan International 1988-1996 / 34 Caps)

R.I.P. Fats (Samoan International 1988-1996 / 34 Caps)

His career spanned the early eighties to the mid-nineties and considering he never made the All Blacks he would still be well remembered by rugby fans all over New Zealand. He was a larger than life character and he has left all too soon. My tribute to Peter is to touch on the match he played in Cardiff in 1991 and to explain a little about how Samoan rugby has influenced my old neighbourhood of Ponsonby and vice versa.There are probably a few Welsh players who still lose sleep over the match at Cardiff Arms. Here’s a Rugby Blanket excerpt from the episode – ‘The Ponsonby Connection’:

 “In the first round, no match captured the Rugby fans attention like Wales versus Western Samoa in Cardiff.  Samoa who had not made the tournament in 1987 were tasked with the difficult challenge of winning a match where so very few away teams did – Cardiff Arms Park.

The Samoans didn’t disappoint.  They tackled hard and shocked the Welsh with an impact that they did not recover from.  To’o Vaega scored when he chipped the fullback and the Samoans stayed in front with the boot of halfback Mathew Vaea.   The final score was 16-13 and the Samoans celebrated.  All of the Western Bays of Auckland celebrated, and the rest.

I remember the after match interview with Samoan captain Peter ‘Fats’ Fatialofa lost for words at times and throwing in the odd swear word to really capture the gravity of the occasion.  The Welsh now faced having to beat a very strong Australian team and hope that other results went their way to stay in the Cup.  It was looking doubtful and only a round into the competition.

It was an unlikely victory but to a lad who grew up around the Western Bays of Auckland it wasn’t hard to see the team had the potential to beat anybody.  A number of players were based in the Samoan Islands where the local registered player base was about 2000 but it was clear there were Auckland and New Zealand-based players who added depth to the squad.  What is often overlooked is that because Auckland is the largest Polynesian city, it in itself has a huge Pacific Island community.  To give those in the northern hemisphere an idea of the Samoan community in New Zealand is to dilute the often abused label of ‘poachers’ by said distanced scribes.  As it stands at this time there are more than quarter of a million people from Pacific Island nations living in New Zealand whether that be Tokelau, Fiji, Cook Islands, Tonga and others.  Half of that number are Samoan.  When you consider that the majority of those Samoans live in Auckland it can swiftly be deduced that the 2000 registered players in Samoa itself can be easily matched or bettered in Auckland alone.  And of all the clubs in the Auckland region, no club has benefitted more from the Samoan Connection than Ponsonby.

Ponsonby is the oldest and most trophy-laden club in the Auckland Union and as a club is second only to Otago University in terms of producing All Blacks.  There are more than fifty at this time and dozens of Ponsonby players who have gone on to represent Samoa at age group and test level. It is clubs like this with a strong connection to the islands that can create a strong legacy for those nations even in professional times when the funding is at scarce levels for the smaller national unions.

As a paperboy for the New Zealand Herald around the time of this World Cup, I would often walk past Ponsonby’s training shed and wonder how the unassuming venue created all these players that reached the highest levels of the game.  The shed was unoccupied at the time.  There was no smell of liniment or the sound of clashing bodies.  That was due to the fact it was normally 5:30 in the morning and the only sounds to be heard were the occasional barking dog, and the only smells in the neighbourhood was the blended aroma of night scented jasmine, dog droppings and the freshly printed newspaper ink that coated my fingers.

It baffled me to think that this green corrugated shed, a simple and functional piece of infrastructure, had done as much for the sport of rugby as any Cardiff Arms Park or Landsdowne Rd ever had.  It was a shed lined with sawdust and yet compared favourably with those fields of sporting dreams.

The Ponsonby Shed - Where legends are made.

The Ponsonby Shed – Where legends are made.

Of the Samoan team who beat Wales in 1991, Frank Bunce would become an All Black of fifty five test matches.  Considering his debut was at thirty years of age it just proved to underline his quality.  Pat Lam would also make the All Blacks only briefly but would contribute greatly to the Auckland province as a player and coach.  Brian Lima would play in five World Cups.  Stephen Bachop who also made the All Blacks in 1992 contributed critically to Otago’s national provincial win in 1991 and the province’s wins over the British Lions and South Africa.  All in, that team were part of a legacy that still makes the Samoan team formidable two decades on.”

Something tells me this weekend’s match will start with some fireworks. A testing first twenty for the Irish and their new manager and hopefully a display of Samoan passion put on for the man who now has the best seat in the house.

Rest In Peace Fats.

 

 

*As a tribute I am making The Rugby Blanket half price during the Autumn Internationals. Just $2.99 USD. It’d be a bargain at twice the price.

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