Peter Fatialofa walked with kings and commoners and treated them all the same, his friends say, as they prepare to farewell the Samoan rugby great for the last time.

Fats, as he was affectionately known, died suddenly in Samoa last week aged 54, leaving behind a legacy that spread far beyond the rugby field.

At least 1500 people gathered at the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau tonight for a memorial service, and the likes of Bryan Williams, Michael Jones and Joe Stanley shared memories of the larger-than-life front rower.

"He walked with kings and commoners and treated them all the same, and that's why he got that respect from people and that's why we loved him so much,'' Stanley said.


Fatialofa was described as a "rough diamond'' and a "hard guy'' but a man who always wore an infectious smile.

"He did everything with a sense of joy. He did that throughout his life and his rugby career and that's why he touched so many people,'' said Stanley, who went on to talk about Fatialofa's disappointment at never being selected to play for the All Blacks.

"We all believed he should have been an All Black, but in every cloud there's silver lining and I guess that's what the calling was and he went to Manu Samoa and the rest is history.''

Fatialofa captained the Manu Samoa team at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, leading them to the quarter finals.

There were plenty of amusing anecdotes about Fatialofa tonight.

Former All Black and Samoa rugby coach Bryan Williams told how when Fatialofa was on tour in the United Kingdom in 1995, he was invited by the Queen to go to Hyde Park in the Royal carriage, and he accepted.

"Suddenly one of the horses let off this almighty fart, and the Queen turns to Fats and says `I'm terribly sorry about that, Mr Fatialofa'. He turns to the Queen and says `mam, if you hadn't have mentioned it I'd have thought it was the horse'.''

Williams said Fatialofa was responsible for putting Samoan rugby on the map, and said he was a man who "transcended boundaries, no doubt about it''.

Sports journalist Phil Gifford, who worked with Fatialofa on his biography `Fats' tried to put his finger on why Fatialofa was so widely loved.

"I think the answer is, as answers often are in life, not that complicated. I think it's because from the time when I first met him in the early 1980s to the time he became an international figure in rugby with Manu Samoa, Peter never changed; he was always humble, he was always cheerful, he was always friendly, he always had a story and he was always up for a party.

"He wasn't just a great rugby player but he was such a wonderful great man as well.''

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

His funeral service will be held tomorrow before he is buried in the Manukau Memorial Gardens.

Gallery: The life of a rugby great: