Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Islanders owe 'Fats' a debt of gratitude

Peter Fatialofa leaves a big legacy in death. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Peter Fatialofa leaves a big legacy in death. Photo / Sarah Ivey

As much as Keven Mealamu has done to inspire a generation of Pacific Island players, he knows it pales in comparison with the reach of Peter Fatialofa.

Mealamu is one of many players of Samoan heritage who was inspired by the great Manu Samoa team of 1991 who were the rightful darlings of that World Cup. That side put the tiny island nation on the world map: the names are still instantly recalled... Frank Bunce, Apollo Perellini, Brian Lima, Pat Lam and of course, captain, cultural leader and inspiration to them all, Fatialofa, who died on Wednesday.

A larger than life character, his legacy was bigger again and will be apparent all across Europe this weekend and certainly within the All Blacks.

Samoa will take on Ireland in Dublin - a game that would have been almost unthinkable pre-1991. But Samoa have become A-list material in the past 20 years and the invitations to play Tier One nations come thick and fast these days.

Then there is the number of players from a Samoan background who will be in action. If it had not been for injury, England would have fielded Manu Tuilagi in their midfield: a player whose full name is Manu Samoa Tuilagi - given to him because he was born in 1991.

The All Blacks have the biggest Samoan presence - Mealamu, Steven Luatua, Charlie Faumuina and Ma'a Nonu are all in the match day 23, while Francis Saili is in the squad. Although from Tongan backgrounds, Charles Piutau and Frank Halai, reckons Mealamu, also owe something to Fatialofa and the trailblazing Manu Samoans. "They know who Fats is," says Mealamu. "He will have had some part, some little part in them being here."

What Mealamu likes about the young generation of Samoan All Blacks is their work ethic. All are supremely talented but realise that is not enough to carve out a successful test career.

"I am [proud of them] and it's good to see that they are not just backing their talent. I see them working hard as well. They are not just resting on their talent. They are looking to improve and they have a good chance of being in the jersey for a long time."

Mealamu is too humble to say it, or even think it, but with the passing of Fatialofa he is now the spiritual leader, the father of the Samoan rugby community. The respect in which he is held within the All Blacks significant. He's a father figure to all, but especially to the young Aucklanders - all of whom come from a Pacific Island background. To them he is a mentor, a confidante and a guiding light. He's much like Fatialofa in that respect, but Mealamu says that the former Samoan captain is going to leave a huge void.

It's not a void that he or anyone else could easily fill. "In rugby circles we are going to miss his personality around. I remember being on the [All Black] bus last night and one of my teammates saying he [Fatialofa] had passed away. Initially I couldn't believe it had happened. I want to send all our thoughts and prayers out to his family," he said yesterday.

"I met him quite a few times off the rugby field and had watched him play as I grew up as well. It's amazing to have that relationship where you see people when you are growing up and then to be able to meet them as an adult was pretty cool.

"He was part of the team that put them in the map. I remember watching Manu Samoa play in 1991 and they were definitely a team I looked up to. There were quite a few in that team who inspired me to play rugby."

- NZ Herald

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