Va’aiga ‘Inga’ Tuigamala funeral: Ex-All Black bids farewell to Auckland

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Va’aiga Tuigamala was in state before the funeral. Video / Brett Phibbs

Most knew him as “Inga the Winger”, a young man with a big smile who had a knack for outmaneuvering opposing rugby players with his speed, skill and power while wearing the black jersey.

Today, Va’aiga “Inga” Tuigamala is also remembered for his qualities off the court – 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 feat with an oval ball in hand.

Tuigamala, who rose to international fame in rugby with his dynamic and powerful style in 19 All Black Tests, and then brought his talent to English rugby league team Wigan for over 100 games 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 manager Sir Graham Henry and former All Blacks Sir Michael Jones and Eroni Clarke, gathered at the old Tuigamala school – Kelston Boys’ High in West Auckland – to the 52-year-old’s funeral.

Daphne Tuigamala, widow of Va'aiga Tuigamala, spoke about the former All Black's romantic side at his funeral in Auckland today.  Photo/Brett Phibbs
Daphne Tuigamala, widow of Va’aiga Tuigamala, spoke about the former All Black’s romantic side at his funeral in Auckland today. Photo/Brett Phibbs

The service, which was followed by a final hearse ride around the Kelston Boys rugby ground, took place 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 by her side, Daphne Tuigamala said many stories were shared about her husband’s “incredible legacy, his infectious smile and how he touched so many lives in a positive way”.

“Now I’m going to tell you about his romantic side,” she said with a laugh.

His commitment to pursue her after they met as teenagers was “on another level”, and included acquiring a vehicle after she once positively commented on the model.

Va'aiga Tuigamala played 19 Tests for the All Blacks in the early 1990s and became a beloved public figure known as
Va’aiga Tuigamala played 19 Tests for the All Blacks in the early 1990s and became a beloved public figure known as ‘Inga the Winger’. Photo / www.photosport.nz

He also took to running outside his house “in his muscle shirt, in the middle of winter”, and asked the non-rugby fan to come to his matches – where he then scored “three, four , five tries”.

“Take note guys, this stuff works. [And] I think I can say that I also contributed to his rugby career.”

She thanked him for loving and protecting his family.

“The world loved and adored you, but we were your world…good night, my love.”

Tuigamala’s brother Tamapa’a spoke of his brother’s youth, his Don King-like hair that withstood every effort of the comb, and his penchant for leaving his socks out after the family moved from Samoa in New Zealand – moving to Invercargill and later Auckland – when the future All Black was 4.

“[In winter] it is very cold… they would go really hard. I’m making toast and the next minute I can smell something. It was Inga’s socks in the oven.”

Childhood friend Afi Leuila holds a picture of a young Va'aiga
Childhood friend Afi Leuila holds a picture of a young Va’aiga ‘Inga’ Tuigamala during today’s funeral for the rugby great. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Former All Blacks manager Sir Graham Henry, manager of Kelston Boys when Tuigamala was a student, spoke of an immediate friendship stemming from a shared love of rugby.

Along with later Apollo Perelini, rugby international Manu Samoa, Tuigamala was a pioneer in showing that success for other students 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 over the next 10 years there were 10 other All Blacks from this school.

He was stunned when Tuigamala, who also played 49 games for Auckland, told him in 1993 that he was going to play professional rugby league in the UK.

Rugby was, at the time, still an amateur sport.

“I said, ‘Why are you doing this, Inga? You could be one of the greatest All Blacks”.
He said, “Listen, sir – he always called me sir or sir Henry – I have to take care of Daphne and the family, and my mother”.

“And I felt really humbled.”

Sir Graham Henry, pictured with his wife Raewyn Henry, first met Va'aiga Tuigamala when he was headmaster of Kelston Boys' High - where Tuigamala was a student  Photo/Brett Phibbs
Sir Graham Henry, pictured with his wife Raewyn Henry, first met Va’aiga Tuigamala when he was headmaster of Kelston Boys’ High – where Tuigamala was a student Photo/Brett Phibbs

Tuigamala had “a big shock” at Wigan because he wasn’t fit enough, Henry said.

“But he showed great tenacity and he went through what a lot of young men wouldn’t go through, and he became a superstar.”

Childhood friend Afi Leuila – who joined Tuigamala in England when he went to Wigan – has spoken of later playing in a side that beat the league power, and how Tuigamala was Wigan’s only player coming to the opposing team’s clubs after the match.

“He said to me later: ‘In order for you to enjoy victory, you have to accept defeat’.”

Va’aiga
Va’aiga ‘Inga’ Tuigamala’s funeral took place in Auckland today, following her sudden death last month at the age of 52. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Tuigamala’s faith in God gave her “a lot of backbone”, Henry said.

But he was also ready to face difficult situations that other young men avoided, and because of that, he made a huge difference in the lives of others.

“He loved people, and they loved him… buddy, I’m gonna miss you. Goodbye, buddy.”

In the last years of her life, Tuigamala had supported work to improve the health of others, and her own, by working with organizations such as Alliance Health Plus.

When he died, he was set to launch a new series of videos speaking openly about his health issues, including his obesity and being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Covid-19 restrictions meant only 100 people could gather in person for Va'aiga Tuigamala's funeral in Auckland today, but thousands more watched a live broadcast from the service.  Photo/Brett Phibbs
Covid-19 restrictions meant only 100 people could gather in person for Va’aiga Tuigamala’s funeral in Auckland today, but thousands more watched a live broadcast from the service. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Tuigamala had previously managed to reverse his diabetes, a remarkable effort, and brought him to tears when he heard the news, Alliance Health Plus board chairman Uluomato’otua Saulaulu Aiono told mourners.

“If you look at 1000 type 2 diabetics, none of them will reverse their diabetes, but Inga did.

“Inga’s dream was to show people what you can do by changing what you eat and exercising.”

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