When the Wallabies’ Oikoumene ‘Hunter’ Paisami and All Black Ofa Tu’ungafasi face off this weekend they’ll not only be representing their respective nations, but also their former school of Māngere College.
A small high school in South Auckland will be cheering for both sides tomorrow at Eden Park – they’ve got old boys in the Wallabies as well as the All Blacks.
Wallabies centre Oikoumene “Hunter” Paisami and All Blacks prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi both hail from Māngere College and the pair returned to their old haunt this week.
“We really appreciate them coming back and showing what hard work and strong values can get you,” says principal Tom Webb. “And we’ll be wishing both teams all the best this Sunday — but maybe wishing a little bit more for Ofa.”
Paisami and Tu’ungafasi know each well off the field, as Paisami is good friends with Tu’ungafasi’s younger brother and often stays with the family when he returns to New Zealand. Even though Tu’ungafasi left high school three years before Paisami began, he says the accomplished Blues and All Blacks prop was an inspiration growing up.
“When I was at high school I was always over at his house with Leka [Tu’ungafasi’s brother], trying to steal his Blues and All Blacks kit,” says Paisami. “It was good to play against him on the weekend – he’s such a good dude on and off the field.
“He would always say it doesn’t matter what school you go to because you can make it from anywhere. Given he has been able to make it out of Māngere College to the Super Rugby and All Blacks level, I’ve always looked up to him.”
Tu’ungafasi has also been following Paisami’s meteoric rise.
“I’ve been watching a lot of the Reds games because I knew a lot of their forwards would be in the Wallabies, so I’ve been watching him really closely as well and I wasn’t really surprised to see him picked, as I could see he was playing really well.”
Both players shared with the pupils the challenges they’ve overcome to make it into professional rugby. For Paisami, he says moving to Australia in Year 12 and having to make new friends and learn a new culture was tough. While he quickly made it into the Australian school boys team, his career hit a crossroads when he was cut by the Melbourne Rebels squad in 2018. However, he was able to catch the eye of former All Blacks lock and Reds coach Brad Thorne, and within a short period of time he’s become a consistent figure for his new team. He says it’s hard to believe he’s back in New Zealand – as a Wallaby.
“When my name got announced, I was nervous the whole week – I couldn’t sit properly, I was up every night thinking about it and I found it hard to accept it was real. And now to be here in my old hometown, to play at Eden Park, a ground that I’ve always dreamed of playing on from when I was at Māngere College – it’s such an honour.”
Tu’ungafasi says being from a smaller public school has been the best foundation for his professional rugby career, as it has taught him the importance of hard work and taking nothing for granted. His workouts running up One Tree Hill and Māngere mountain in the early hours of the morning have taken on legendary status around the Māngere community. He says his main inspiration was seeing how hard his own parents worked.
“I had 12 siblings, and my dad was the only one working to support us, so life was pretty tough. When I started at Māngere College, I couldn’t speak any English, but I remember sitting in assembly thinking I want to get to the end of my time here and be able to give a speech to all the students – and I’ve done that. I believe anyone else can achieve what they want if they work hard and believe in themselves.”
Mele Ah Sam taught both young men. She says while Tu’ungafasi was dedicated in class and on the rugby field, Paisami was purely focused on rugby.
“Ofa is a lovely person and was a lovely student. I really admire him, for being able to go from someone who couldn’t speak English, who worked really hard, and is now standing here having done so well. I don’t remember him really excelling in rugby until he left – but once he left he just took off.
“Mene, on the other hand — all he wanted to do was play rugby and he used to go around telling us too. He was forever out of class for whatever reason. But I’m really pleased for him – he’s excelled and he’s probably surprised himself.”
Māngere College head girl Herilla Salu says having two successful Pasifika former pupils share their journey had a big impact on her and her peers.
“Knowing they’ve come from the same background as us can definitely inspire us – and as Year 13s who are leaving school soon and having to decide what we’re going to be doing in our future, it can motivate us to believe in ourselves and go for what we dream of doing.”