Most knew him as “Inga the Winger”, a young man with a big grin who had a knack for outwitting opposing rugby players with his speed, skill and power while wearing the black jersey.
Today, Va’aiga “Inga” Tuigamala was also remembered for his qualities off the field – his devotion to family, friends, community and his Christian faith, and the sense of fun that brought as much joy to those around him as any exploits with oval ball in hand.
Tuigamala, who earned international rugby fame with his dynamic and powerful style in 19 All Black tests, and later took his talent to English rugby league side Wigan for more than 100 matches before returning to his Samoan roots with 23 tests for Manu Samoa, died suddenly last month.
This morning, family and friends, including former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry and former All Blacks Sir Michael Jones and Eroni Clarke, gathered at Tuigamala’s old school – Kelston Boys’ High in West Auckland – for the 52-year-old’s funeral.
The service, which was followed by a final lap by the hearse around Kelston Boys’ rugby field, came just two days before their 30th wedding anniversary, widow Daphne Tuigamala told mourners.
“We almost made it, honey.”
With the couple’s four children, and some of their grandchildren, at her side, Daphne Tuigamala said there had been many stories shared about her husband’s “incredible legacy, infectious smile and the way he’s touched so many lives in a positive way”.
“Now I’m going to tell you about his romantic side”, she said, to laughter.
His commitment in pursuing her after they met as teens was “another level”, and included acquiring a vehicle after she once commented positively on the model.
He also took to running past her home “with his muscle T-shirt on, in the middle of winter”, and asking the non-rugby fan to come to his games – where he’d then score “three, four, five tries”.
“Take note guys, this stuff works. [And] I think I can say I contributed to his rugby career as well.”
She thanked him for loving and protecting his family.
“The world loved and adored you, but we were your world … goodnight, my love.”
Tuigamala’s brother, Tamapa’a, spoke about his sibling’s early life, his Don King-like hair that resisted all efforts from the comb and his penchant for leaving his socks outside after the family moved from Samoa to New Zealand – settling in Invercargill and later Auckland -when the future All Black was 4.
“[In winter] it’s freezing … they’d go really hard. I’m making toast and the next minute I can smell something. It was Inga’s socks in the oven.”
Former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry, principal at Kelston Boys’ when Tuigamala was a student, spoke about an immediate friendship from a shared love of rugby.
Along with later Manu Samoa rugby international Apollo Perelini, Tuigamala was a pioneer in showing other students success was possible, and helped him better understand how to get the best out of Pacific Island students.
“Inga was our first All Black – by ours I mean, this school … and in the next 10 years there was another 10 All Blacks from this school.”
He was stunned when Tuigamala, who also played 49 games for Auckland, told him in 1993 he was going to play professional rugby league in the United Kingdom.
Rugby was, at the time, still an amateur sport.
“I said, ‘What are you doing that for, Inga? You could be one of the greatest All Blacks’.
He said, ‘Look, Sir – he always called me Sir or Mr Henry – I’ve got to look after Daphne and the family, and my mother’.
“And I felt really humbled.”
Tuigamala got “a hell of a shock” at Wigan, because he wasn’t fit enough, Henry said.
“But he showed huge tenacity and he got through what a lot of young men wouldn’t have got through, and he became a superstar.”
Childhood friend Afi Leuila – who joined Tuigamala in England when he went to Wigan – spoke of later playing in a side which beat the league powerhouse, and how Tuigamala was the only Wigan player to come to the opposing side’s clubrooms after the match.
“He told me later, ‘In order for you to enjoy the win, you must accept the loss’.”
Tuigamala’s faith in God gave him “a lot of backbone”, Henry said.
But he was also prepared to tackle difficult situations other young men shied away from, and because of this he made a huge difference to others’ lives.
“He loved people, and they loved him … mate, I’ll miss you. Goodbye, my friend.”
In the later years of his life, Tuigamala had supported work to improve the health of others, and his own, through work with organisations such as Alliance Health Plus.
When he died he was about to launch a new video series talking openly about his health struggles, including his obesity and being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Tuigamala had earlier managed to reverse his diabetes, a remarkable effort, and rang him in tears with the news, Alliance Health Plus board chairman Uluomato’otua Saulaulu Aiono told mourners.
“If you look at 1000 type 2 diabetics, not one of them will reverse their diabetes, but Inga did.
“Inga’s dream was to show people what can be done by changing what you eat, and by exercise.”
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