Samoan rugby legend Peter Fatialofa dies

By Vaimoana Tapaleao, Kris Shannon

Peter Fatialofa in 2006. File photo / Kellie Blizard
Peter Fatialofa in 2006. File photo / Kellie Blizard

Auckland and Samoan rugby is in mourning after the loss of the one of the game's "larger than life" personalities.

Papali'itele Peter Fatialofa died suddenly this morning in Samoa aged 54 and his passing has generated shock waves across the rugby community.

From the Ponsonby Rugby Club, Mr Fatialofa played 71 games in the front row for Auckland after debuting in 1984 and, for the following eight years, was a member of the side during one of Auckland's most dominant eras.

Mr Fatialofa's daughter, Courtney, told the Herald the family had received a call early this morning.

"My mum found out from her friends. It was sudden. He wasn't sick or anything."

It is understood Mr Fatialofa had been on his way to a radio interview when he had a heart attack.

He was due to fly back to Auckland tomorrow.

Family spokesman and brother-in-law, Poutoa Papali'i, said the extended family were gathering to be with his sister Anne and the couple's eight children.

"We were quite shocked to hear the news. We never expected anything like this to happen. He's only 54 and we're just trying to process his sudden departure.

"We're being there for Anne and the kids - who really miss their father - and they're struggling. We're just here as an extended family to be here to support them."

Mr Papali'i said the family are discussing funeral plans; but were preparing to give the rugby giant a fitting send-off.

"I had to remind my sister that this is going to be bigger than just the family because of what he's done for Samoa and rugby. You can't disassociate Fats from what Manu Samoa rugby is now."

Auckland Rugby Union board member and former teammate Gary Whetton was saddened to hear of Mr Fatialofa's passing.

"He was the ultimate team man - on the field he was huge and off the field such a gentleman. I am so sad for Anne and his family - we have all lost a brilliant man."

Mr Whetton recalls Mr Fatialofa was given the important role of 'Keeper of the Shield'.

"When we won the Ranfurly Shield in 1985, Fats was charged as being the Keeper of the Shield. It was his job to keep it safe, to make sure it came on the road with us - he had to know where it was at all times, and I think a lot of those times it was at his house."

Former All Black Michael Jones paid tribute to the man he called an old friend.

Speaking to the Herald from Paris, where he attended a rugby awards dinner this week, he said he was still trying to come to terms with the news of the death.

"It's just a real shock. He's one of those guys that really is larger than life. He's such a wonderful man, a fantastic guy and a family man - he was all about his family."

Jones remembered Fatialofa as the person who took him under his wing when he first started playing rugby for Auckland as a 20-year-old kid fresh out of high school.

"I was this shy Polynesian kid...He looked after me like I was his little brother."

Jones, who has also coached the Manu Samoa team over the years, said Fatialofa was one of the faces of Samoan rugby.

He was also instrumental in the setting up of the annual Samoan Sports Awards in New Zealand.

Jones said: "He really was part and parcel of our community - especially in sports. I think Peter Fats embodied everything that was really special and unique about Samoan rugby.

"He was a key figure that really brought Samoan rugby to the world and they became the darlings of rugby. He was a big man, with a big heart and a big spirit."

Another former All Black, Andy Haden, remembered his old Ponsonby team-mate fondly and described Mr Fatialofa as a tough but colourful character.

"He was a tough bugger. He didn't take a backwards step and he was certainly right up with the best props in the country at the time.

"I played probably more than ten years at Ponsonby club ... so I remember him well, there were a lot of good times and training sessions."

Mr Haden said he remembered how Mr Fatialofa worked hard to get a spot on the All Blacks squad; which was not to be.

"I thought he was desperately unlucky and he got very close. He was the loyalist of team men. He had a great affinity for Ponsonby rugby and then became a great member of the Auckland side of the eighties.

"And then when the opportunity came up in the World Cup and Manu Samoa came along - they couldn't have found a better captain and talisman."

About five years ago, Mr Fatialofa hosted Mr Haden and his wife on a trip to Samoa.

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A proud Samoan, Mr Fatialofa was one of the first New Zealand-based players to play for Manu Samoa. He captained the side in their first Rugby World Cup campaign in 1991 at which they reached the quarter-finals.

Mr Fatialofa played for Manu Samoa until 1996, the same year he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to rugby.

His status in Samoa is legendary and his service to Samoan rugby continued to the end, as he was coaching the women's Samoan rugby team in their quest to play at next year's Rugby World Cup in France.

Prior to that, Mr Fatialofa had coached the East Tamaki premier side and contributed to the Auckland Rugby Union Council of Delegates representing Samoan rugby interests.

Off the field, Mr Fatialofa set up a successful piano-moving business called Peter Fats, Piano and Furniture Removal, which continues today. Mr Fatialofa has maintained his love for both New Zealand and Samoa through his Samoan adventure and experience business Fats Tours.

Frank Bunce remembered "the big man's" captaincy style when they played alongside each other for the Manu Samoa team in 1991.

Mr Bunce's performance at that Rugby World Cup would later earn him an All Black jersey.

"We knew what Fats wanted. There was no doubt in our minds that he expected us to do everything right and we were confident.

"It was a good thing, because we never had much as a team. We didn't have any money, any gear. We just had a lot of belief, support, faith and talent.''

Mr Bunce said his old team-mate was known for his big smile, but also for his hardcase nature and humour.

"He loved people and people loved him. He was was always smiling, always happy - even when he was trying to be furious. He couldn't help but crack a joke or make some smart remark.

"He used to do that on the field as well. He would make light of the situation, always funny on the field.''

All Black great Bryan Williams said a "huge wave of emotion" came over him following the news of Fatialofa's death.

"There are so many memories that came flooding back. Peter Fats is one of the icons of our sport.

"It's not just about Samoan rugby or Ponsonby or Auckland rugby. He transcended all boundaries. He was universally popular throughout the rugby world."

Williams said he first met Fatialofa when the soon to be popular prop was a 19-year-old who was just starting to find his feet at the Ponsonby Rugby Club.

"He was a bit of a rough, unpolished diamond, to be honest."

He said Mr Fatialofa had been one of Samoa's biggest helpers in terms of getting the country's rugby team onto the world stage.

One of Mr Fatialofa's most well-known roles was captaining the Manu Samoa team at its first Rugby World Cup tournament in 1991.

Mr Williams said: "He was so proud about that. He just had a huge passion and drive to put Samoan rugby on the map and that's what he's done."

This morning's news came as a great shock to rugby fans and the Samoan community, some taking to Twitter to express their condolences:








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