Former All Black Va’aiga Tuigamala dies aged 52

Former All Black Fesolai Va’aiga Tuigamala, nicknamed “Inga the winger”, has died aged 52.

Considered one of rugby’s greats, he played 19 Tests for the All Blacks between 1991 and 1993 and 23 Tests for Manu Samoa from 1996. He later made a successful move to rugby league with Wigan in the UK.

His strong performance on the pitch was recognized in 2008 when he was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for service to rugby and the community.

News of his death emerged on Thursday evening just weeks after his sister Helen Verry died after being seriously injured at a church in West Auckland.

Following Tuigamala’s rugby career, he faced many challenges including the collapse of two businesses, financial difficulties and serious health risks, but he always fought back determined to turn things around and encourage the others.

“I know what it’s like to be poor, I know what it’s like to be famous, I know what it’s like to have a lot of money but that doesn’t define you, it doesn’t define you not,” he said.

The church played a big role in his life.

England’s Rugby World Cup winner Jason Robinson revealed in 2015 how Tuigamala saved him from the brink of suicide by introducing him to his faith.

Va''aiga Tuigamala photographed in 1998.

Robinson posted after news of Tuigamala’s death: “Absolutely sorry…I owe this amazing man so much!” He literally helped change my life when he came to Wigan Warriors from New Zealand. I send all my love and condolences to the family at such a sad time. RIP brother.

Two years ago, when Tuigamala received a traditional Samoan Tatau, he told 1News “my tattoo journey reminds me of those ups and downs – but then where you go and what you do about it.”

Supporting charities and his community was important to him.

Early last year, Tuigamala was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes which landed him in hospital in April. Determined to make positive changes in health, he started the Obesity Diabetes Intervention Champion Evangelist (ODICE) project in hopes of inspiring others.

1News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver remembered Tuigamala in Breakfast as an inspirational figure for children.

“For Pacific kids and for all kids, to be honest, but for Pacific kids to see someone they bond with, how amazing is that? I think what really touched people was that he started from dizzying heights and then had his own challenges,” she said.

She said her legacy would be her compassion and “just caring about her community”.

“He’d been there, done that and he wanted to stop others, young people, going through the same thing then… such a good man. A lovely man, lovely man.”

He leaves behind his wife Daphne Margarete Rose and four children.

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