The new series of Three’s reality show challenges ten more rugby legends to confront their mental and physical health – including the late Va’aiga Tuigamala. Taualofa Totua watched the emotional first episode.
It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in our country’s most popular sport. Watching rugby used to be a weekly winter ritual growing up, one I shared with my Tongan grandpa. I used to consider myself a junior expert on the sport thanks to our compulsory viewings – I would sit with my legs crossed on our living room fala, ready to yell and holler at the players whenever my grandpa did. The live match commentary from Papa’s old radio competed with the sounds of the delayed match screening on our old television. My neck would be the same kind of sore that you feel when you don’t book the right tickets at the cinema, and end up in the front row. I miss it.
It was the late 2000s and rugby still dominated the culture. Not only were the All Blacks players household names, the Pacific Islanders who represented our country were an example of the power of hard work, a successful outcome of the migrant dream. They earned the respect of all New Zealanders, and the unwavering support of Pasifika everywhere – our very own superheroes.
Last night I returned to the game (kind of) to watch Match Fit as it returned to Three. For those who, like me, missed the first season, the series sees a team of “unfit and unhealthy All Black legends” challenged to improve their health both mentally and physically over 12 weeks.
The first episode kicked off with a warm tribute to the late Va’aiga Tuigamala, who passed away shortly after filming this season. Rugby legends Sir Graham Henry, Sir Wayne (Buck) Shelford and Eroni Clarke each spoke of their love for a great friend. Clarke was tearful as he farewelled his uso, sharing how Tuigamala was hesitant to join at first, but gratefully accepted the opportunity with the support of his aiga. “After realising the work that he was doing in the Pacific health space was important in terms of being a role model, he realised that he needed to do something about his own health,” Clarke said.
Throughout the episode, I couldn’t help but engage with Va’aiga Tuigamala’s story the most. His presence changed his fellow Match Fit teammates, whose eyes and smiles widened when he entered the clubroom. (I heard a cry of “oi aue!” And a chorus of amazed “ayes?”) Shots of his charismatic smile and snippets of his dialogue captured him so respectfully. At every point he was willing to do the hard work and was optimistic about the challenge ahead.
This year, the show claims there are bigger issues for the legends to tackle. Preparing for a hopefully long future as granddads, they fight diabetes, anxiety, weight gain and more. Māori and Pasifika health statistics condemn many men to a lower life expectancy, and the former All Blacks are confronting the same reality as all other tāne across Aotearoa. Piri Weepu is a sleep deprived father to a newborn, Brad Mika’s arthritic knees stop him from running like he used to, former prop Kees Meeuws says he wants to be around for his moko.
I thought about my grandpa and his unreliable commitment to doctor’s appointments and medication. I thought about the times we tried therapy to help him talk more and I thought about the decades of consequences on him and us due to him not talking. I got emotional as each of the men expertly switched from cracking jokes to listing their health issues, reminded of male friends and their self-deprecating humour.
Most of the first episode took place at a familiar spot – the Eden Rugby Club, just down the road from the famous park of the same name. Later in the episode, everybody attempted the Bronco fitness test – where players run shuttles of 20 metres, 40 metres and 60 metres, five times over, as quickly as possible. Tuigamala walked it. He cried at another point in the show, while highlighting the ongoing struggle he’s faced since saying goodbye to his rugby career. “We didn’t have the support back then, it was just ‘harden up and get on with it’, don’t show any emotions.” At the time of filming he was 52 years old. He was the last to complete the Bronco test, with the rest of the Match Fit team joining him to help complete his final shuttle together.
There is so much power in these men showing their vulnerability so publicly, confronting the reality of their health and wellbeing. “Inga the Winger” will always be one of the superheroes worshipped in Pasifika homes – it’s a privilege for us fans to have been given an insight to the person behind the superhero All Blacks uniform.
Match Fit screens at 7.30pm Wednesdays on Three and is available to stream on Three Now.