One of New Zealand rugby's modern legends, Va'aiga Tuigamala - known to a generation of Kiwi fans as 'Inga the Winger' - has died, aged 52.
The blockbusting, Samoa-born Tuigamala's international rugby career spanned 19 tests for the All Blacks between 1991 and 1993 and, later, 23 tests for Manu Samoa from 1996. In between times he switched to rugby league and played more than 100 matches for Wigan in the United Kingdom.
Tributes are pouring in from across the sporting world for Tuigamala. "Every now and then a player comes along who touches the heart and soul of every single fan, player, coach and administrator – Inga was one of them. He was one of the most exciting rugby players to play either code," said Wigan executive director Kris Radlinski.
Tuigamala's death comes just weeks after his younger sister, Helen Verry, died following an accident at a West Auckland church. He posted on Facebook at the time: "I suppose some of you have already heard the sad news of the passing of my baby sister Helen Verry. The youngest of 15 of us. Helen, we miss you so dearly and words would never be enough to fill the hole you have left."
Tuigamala's cause of death has not yet been confirmed - he was about to launch a new video series in which he talks openly about his health struggles, including being diagnosed last year with type 2 diabetes.
"The reality was, I was facing an early graveyard," Tuigamala says in a preview video of the series, Project ODICE (obesity diabetes intervention champion evangelist). "And when I say early grave, my father died at the age of 48 from a stroke. He wasn't obese, but he had a stroke and died and left 15 children to my mum to look after.
"I suppose for me, I just don't want to be another statistic. Hence the reason ODICE was born. The reality is unfortunately I've been diagnosed with type two diabetes recently. I'm obese as you can see. High blood pressure, I had a stroke about nine years ago. I've really - in rugby terms - just dropped the ball."
The series shows him exercising, including running through a park. "I'm absolutely stuffed, but it's great to be alive."
Tuigamala - who played club rugby for Ponsonby and provincial rugby for Auckland - first played for the All Blacks in 1989 before making his test debut in 1991 - against the USA in a World Cup game at Gloucester. He scored five tries in his All Blacks career.
"Tuigamala was one of the first blockbusting wingers in New Zealand, and indeed, world rugby before leaving the game to pursue a British league career," says his profile on Allblacks.com. "At his best, he was fast, powerful and tricky... especially in his younger days, he looked capable of achieving anything on a rugby field."
The All Blacks paid tribute on Twitter. "An icon and an inspiration. Va'aiga Tuigamala is an all-time great who achieved things on and off the pitch others could only dream of. All Black number 900, you will never [be] forgotten."
Auckland's Marist rugby club paid tribute to their fierce rival. "It's with heavy hearts that we mourn the loss of a true entertainer, an amazing sports personality, a leader in the Pacific Island community, a legend of our biggest rugby club rivals, the Ponsonby Rugby Club. Va'aiga Tuigamala, you were an inspiration to young Pacific Islanders and Kiwis growing up in the 90s. Your infectious smile will never be forgotten."
Having arrived in the United Kingdom from New Zealand in 1993, Tuigamala played 102 games for the Wigan Warriors during five seasons at the rugby league club, scoring 62 tries. He won three league titles with Wigan and two Challenge Cups.
Wigan planned to hold a minute's silence before their Super League fixture against Huddersfield Giants overnight.
After his stint in league, he returned to rugby union, where he made 126 appearances for Wasps and Newcastle Falcons, scoring 180 points. His reported £1 million ($NZ2m) signing for the Falcons was a then world-record fee.
BBC broadcaster Tulsen Tollett wrote: "Va'aiga Tuigamala was one of the true forerunners of Pacific Nations Rugby players. A gentle man who cared about others. Someone who would tackle you hard but make sure you were okay before moving on. He helped many, on & off the pitch. My condolences to his friends & family."
Tuigamala went on to have a long rugby career with Manu Samoa. His test debut for his country of birth took place in Dublin in 1996 when Manu Samoa upset Ireland, and he was also involved in the famous victory over Wales in the 1999 World Cup.
'Inga saved my life'
Former England rugby star Jason Robinson said he was heartbroken by the news of Tuigamala's death - he credits Tuigamala for saving his own life.
In 2015, Robinson admitted he had been a heavy drinker during his early days at rugby league club Wigan, which almost led to his downfall. "I got into a situation where I was drinking sometimes six nights a week."
However, it was his arrest for affray, assault and criminal damage which left him considering an attempt on his own life and he credits then-teammate Tuigamala with turning things around.
"I can remember I just sat in my bedroom with an old knife, an old meat cleaver," he recalled. "I didn't want life to go on in this way. That night when I contemplated doing it, I wept like a baby. Had it not been for him (Tuigamala), coming into the environment I was in and putting a different slant on it, I certainly wouldn't have the hope that I've got now. And hope is something that people can't take away."
In 2002, Robinson told The Telegraph that God entered his life through Tuigamala. "I used to watch him in the dressing-room and thought 'what is it about this guy?' He didn't go out drinking, he wasn't looking round the car park to see if anyone had a better car, he didn't sleep around, all the things that you - misguidedly - think are the clever things to do.
"I didn't have to ask him the secret of this happiness, I knew what it was - his relationship with God."
Ex-Samoa international Apollo Perelini said: "Saddest news to hear. We started primary school together and took our rugby journey to the UK. RiL my dearest brother Inga(the winger) Tuigamala".
After a successful rugby career, Tuigamala retired in 2002.
In 2007, he suffered a stroke on the Titirangi Golf Course; an ambulance was called and he was whisked to Waitakere Hospital, then later to North Shore Hospital.
"My blood pressure was way off the roof," father of four recalled later.
A mild stroke was diagnosed. He was put on medication and advised to improve his diet, get more exercise - and slow down, "which is something I find hard to do".
In the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours, Tuigamala was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to rugby and the community. In October 2009, he travelled to Samoa with David Tua to assist in the aftermath of the Samoa tsunami.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told NZME that Tuigamala had a major impact on his political career, crediting him with helping contribute to his successful election campaign in 2008.
"I shall always remember Inga for his infectious smile and bravery. His decision to come on the campaign trail with me and Sir Micheal Jones in 2008 when I was an unknown, undoubtably won me some votes in the pacific community and in a small way assisted me in becoming the 38th Prime Minister"
Life after rugby also saw Tuigamala become a funeral director for a period of time. However, his funeral business, Tuigamala & Sons, was placed in liquidation in 2013.
At the time, Tuigamala was understood to have been owed around $130,000 in unpaid funeral fees and said he had found it difficult to collect money from grieving relatives.
"It's a tough position to be in simply because people are very vulnerable during that time. You're trying to work with them, and unfortunately, over the years, I've given too much grace. I'm not one to turn people way in their time of need."
He refused to be despondent and didn't want any pity. "You're only a failure if you get knocked down and stay down.
"My passion to help my community and my people still burns fire in my belly. You've just got to crawl your way out. That's something I have learned about from my experience in rugby."
Tuigamala is survived by his wife Daphne and four children.
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