BOOK EXTRACT: The Big O: The life and times of Olsen Filipaina by Patrick Skene

One of Olsen's closest friends at the Balmain Tigers was his partner in the centres, Wayne Wigham. During 1980 and 1981 they developed an almost telepathic relationship. Wayne watched Olsen closely, calculating how many seconds it would take him to get his hands free to deliver a pass.

'I studied Olsen's game and had worked out how I could work with him, get the most out of him. I would count to two as everyone was fighting to take him down,' says Wigham. 'I would take off at three, let him know I was there and receive a soft pass on the fly that put me in space and made me look good.'

Before long, Olsen was communicating with Wayne through darting eyes or a raised eyebrow. Off the field, however, Wigham noticed that his friend had become more introverted.

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'In his first year at Balmain, Olsen was very social, coming back to the Leagues Club, playing tennis with the boys, and he was a bit of a celebrity at the Ranch pub in North Ryde, even though he wasn't much of a drinker,' says Wigham.

'Then under (coach) Frank Stanton, he just dropped out. He stopped coming to the pub and would race into the change rooms after training and matches and leave before some of us had even gotten back in there.'

By the 1982 season, Olsen had become a recluse. His triangular routine was work, football and then home to Leslie and his daughter Louise. Reporters, such as Rugby League Week editor Ian Heads, began to notice his absence.

'After the game Filipaina showed he has lost none of his dash in the dressing room,' observed Heads after a pre-season hit-out against Wests. 'He was dressed and gone before half his team was showered. Filipaina is no social butterfly. He plays his football professionally and well, but has no hankering for the social life afterwards. For him the words "training" and "playing" mean just that. As soon as both are finished he's off.'

Olsen remembers a dark time with minimal contact with the outside world: 'I became a homebody and as soon as I had done whatever had to be done I was gone a minute later.

'It became hard to deal with people and socialise and I kept it simple, in survival mode. I'd try to avoid getting my head blown off at training and meeting more people would bring more problems and I had enough piling on top of me already.'

What Heads and Wigham didn't realise at the time was that Olsen was struggling with depression. Later, after Wigham was diagnosed with melancholia, a form of depression and subsequently treated, he came out in the media in 1999, one of the first league players to admit suffering from mental health issues.

But in the early 1980s, a man was supposed to 'suck it up', suffer in silence and get on with life.

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'The hardest part about depression is that it takes away your energy,' says Wigham, who now works with the Black Dog Institute, a charity aimed at educating communities on identifying and managing depression. 'When I was younger I took energy for granted but without it, it's harder to function. So if you're really suffering before the game, you get out of the car, even walking round to the change rooms you'd feel like: "I've got no energy; how am I going to play today?" Then you'd feel bad — "What's wrong with me? I'm selfish, why am I feeling like this?" It's a disease.'

The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina. Photo / Supplied
The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina. Photo / Supplied

Reflecting on his time with Balmain, Wigham feels that Olsen showed every sign of depression. 'It would have been so easy to pick up now but back then no one was talking to us and there was all this pressure,' Wigham explains.

'We didn't know how to look after our minds and for years Olsen put on the face of bravery while he was struggling, which is exhausting. You're exhausted by pretending to your teammates and from putting on your mask. It was brave of Olsen and I'm in awe of him, dealing with the homesickness, the racism and the coach. If the coach doesn't love you and that's what you need, it's hard. It takes your energy and becomes hard to function. You just want to go home and hide, and Olsen did that — he stopped being social and became a loner. At the time I didn't know why but now I understand.'

Aboriginal Balmain teammate Percy Knight recalls Olsen going through a tough time in their three years playing together: 'Frank would publicly humiliate Olsen and he would just absorb it, and we wouldn't know what he was thinking. I remember him looking down at the ground with the shame of it all.'

When Knight was made captain of Balmain, he remembers approaching Olsen about his welfare: "I could tell something was wrong with him and I remember asking him if he was OK and he said he was. We were taught not to show anxiety or emotion and he would suffer in silence.'

In Māori terms, Olsen's silent siege led to a state of 'mauri noho' or slumbering life force, which leads to withdrawal from participating in society. Education Aotearoa defines the outcomes of suffering the 'dormant spirit' of mauri noho as 'loss of hope, a clouded mind, a tortured body and relationships that are disempowering and humiliating'.

Olsen remembers the time with sadness: 'Some days I was bursting out of my skin, others I didn't want to come to the ground and I felt like shit. I remember talking to myself saying, "Get out of this mood. What are you doing?"'

His attitude on match day in Sydney was different to playing in Auckland: 'Growing up, every day I was excited for match day and I couldn't wait all week. In Sydney it was different. Some days when I was thinking about off-field stuff, I couldn't find the spark. I was trying but nothing was happening.'

Looking back, Olsen's partner Leslie agrees with Wigham's assessment and feels that Olsen went through a long and dispiriting phase: 'Olsen was depressed and it felt like he didn't like the game any more. I would try and find out what was wrong with him and he would say, "You don't understand the game." He would say he was tired and you have to remember, back then men showing emotions was taboo.'

* * * * *

Olsen's depression manifested itself though off-season over-eating and he did himself no favours with the extra kilos he was carrying to start the 1982 season. Ian Heads noted in Rugby League Week: 'Olsen Filipaina has not been the star pupil at Leichhardt this year. The Kiwi star came back from summer vacation many kilos overweight and is battling a weight problem.'

The season did not begin well for Balmain with three losses in a row. Balmain were ripe for a change and Stanton took action by dropping Olsen to reserve grade. He was the only back to be dropped, and he didn't take Stanton's decision well.

When the Balmain Tigers' reserve-grade coach, Laurie Freier, called a midweek team meeting, Olsen turned up late, preferring to play squash with a friend.

Olsen's attitude tormented Freier and he recalls an incident: 'I remember the squash court door flying open and Laurie came storming in furious that I was late for the team meeting. But I was in the middle of a tight squash game with my mate that I had promised him for weeks. I couldn't let him down.'

Luckily, he played well that weekend and was recalled to first grade for Balmain's Round 5 clash against South Sydney.

Starting on the bench, Frank Stanton sent Olsen on after halftime with simple instructions: 'to blow up the bridge'. Trailing Souths by one point, Olsen was tasked with shutting down their main attacking threat, Queenslander Mitch Brennan.

In the 65th minute, Brennan received the ball in a backline movement and Olsen lined him up. 'I was in the centres and Mick Pattison was five-eighth facing Olsen,' says Brennan. 'I agreed with Mick that he was to draw Olsen to him and I would take the hole outside him. Well, Mick sold me the best dump. Olsen was roaring in at an angle and Mick just passed the ball straight away. I was trapped between Olsen and my centre and he cleaned me up big time. He was a beautiful guy off the field, but he showed me no mercy that day.'

Olsen's thunderous tackle speared Brennan into the ground, dislodging the ball, which was swooped on by Olsen's teammate Wayne Wigham. On the next play the ball swung out to the Balmain backline for winger John Davidson to score the winning try, the Tigers triumphing 12–8.

'League matches can rarely be encapsulated in one instant,' reported the Sun Herald the next day. 'But that's the way it was yesterday with Filipaina's battering ram tackle jolting the ball loose from Brennan and leading directly to the try that won the match.'

Thirty-seven years after 'The Tackle', journalist and author Ian Heads is still in awe. 'That may well have been the most devastating tackle I ever saw. I saw some of the big hitters — Charlie Frith, Terry Randall, Bunny Reilly— but that one topped it. There was a gasp from the crowd and he almost snapped Brennan in half.'

The Big O by Patrick Skene, $39.99 RRP (Upstart Press), on sale now