The young rugby player at the centre of last year’s biggest news stories, Losi Filipo made his Mitre 10 Cup debut for Wellington last night. It’s a chance at redemption, but not just for him, writes Jamie Wall.
It was a wet, greasy game last night at the grandly-named Rotorua International Stadium. The weather and the prospect of watching Bay of Plenty cop a foreseeable hiding at the hands of a strong Wellington team probably kept many local fans away, as well as the fact that the game was on a Thursday night.
The home side duly lived up to the low expectations, going down 31-10. Aside from a couple of nice tries by the visitors, including one to human highlight reel Asafo Aumua, there’s not much about this game that will stick in the memory – especially since a lot of people would have been watching the much more closely fought match up between Jacinda Ardern and Bill English going on at the same time.
However, there was one milestone that is somewhat noteworthy. In the 65th minute, under the glow of an electronic scoreboard held up by an assistant official, Losi Filipo made his Mitre 10 Cup debut. It was almost exactly a year after he most likely would have, had it not been for probably the biggest New Zealand rugby story of 2016.
Filipo had been found guilty of assaulting four people on a night out in Wellington the previous October, however the judge discharged him without conviction. Details soon emerged of the severity of the incident, with the media and public fixated on the fact that Filipo had stomped on one of the victims’ heads.
The Chiefs stripper scandal, Aaron Smith’s trip to the loo and Filipo’s court hearing all happened in rapid succession, meaning that PR disasters were happening at All Blacks, Super Rugby and provincial level all in quick succession.
Rugby’s image was at a seriously low ebb; I made my feelings known the night the press release about the Filipo case came out from the Wellington Rugby Football Union, mainly because it involved the team I grew up supporting. I couldn’t believe they’d got it so wrong.
In hindsight, I feel like what I wrote was harsh. The WRFU couldn’t possibly have known the absolutely hysterical, over the top reaction from large swathes of the public on social media. This fire of irrationality was fanned by some sensationalist and exceptionally questionable media coverage, hell bent on demonising a guy seemingly getting away with a heinous crime.
Very little was made of the fact that the decision to discharge without conviction was made by an experienced judge, or the fact that discharges are relatively commonplace in cases where the offender has no prior convictions.
In fact, the word hysterical didn’t even begin to describe it. Posts called for the death penalty. Jersey burnings, an act usually reserved for outraged American sports fans when a player takes a better deal on another team. But while that’s a sad joke, Wellington fans immolating a $150 garment was just sad.
If anything, the episode showed us just how little the general public knows about how the justice system works. Or how quick they are to forget all logic and reason when dealing with a seemingly convenient embodiment of a mostly imaginary criminal problem.
But it was done with. The offseason came and went, Super Rugby started again and rugby shook off its year from hell. NZ Rugby appointed their first ever female board member to help ease over the fissures in relations that the Chiefs had opened up with their little party, and then a huge run of action on the field made most people forget about everything else that had happened.
June’s British & Irish Lions tour swept through the country and brought thousands of big-spending Brits with it. The Chiefs were knocked out of Super Rugby at the same stage for the second year running, but avoided the previous year’s disgrace even getting a rerun in the media. The Crusaders went on to win the tournament, bringing the trophy back to Christchurch for the first time since the earthquakes.
The All Blacks went on to have two memorable victories in recent weeks over the Wallabies, with the last game having a strong claim for one of the best ever. Then, to top it all off, the Black Ferns became the feel-good story of the year by winning the World Cup the next morning.
Rugby’s bouncing back. Even a rehash of the Aaron Smith debacle ended up being blamed on the dirty tactics of a desperate Aussie media, and if nothing else offered a good chance to examine the state of education in this country – given that the biggest talking point was Smith’s inability to string a sentence together without making a baffling spelling mistake.
These days it seems only about half a dozen people nationwide still have a passionate interest in provincial rugby, which is why last night was the perfect time for Losi Filipo to make his debut. He was literally the last player listed on Wellington’s team sheet, in a game that no one would notice.
His name was barely mentioned. Sky TV’s team of Willie Lose, Mel Robinson and Bull Allen are so low on their commentary depth chart that I’m inclined to believe they honestly didn’t make the connection when Filipo came on. In a twist of irony, the only time he influenced play was collaring a BOP player with a needless head-high tackle.
Then, that was it. The one player who had people bashing their keyboards and burning their jerseys had got on the field. The WRFU, who’d said they’d stick by him and aid his rehabilitation, have proven that they were completely committed to that.
On Wednesday I’d put in a request to interview Losi Filipo, knowing full well what the response would be – a very polite ‘absolutely not’ from the WRFU media manager. Which I completely accept. It’s been a year now, it’s gone through the courts and the avoidance of the issue that fired me up so much back then has an awful lot more validity now.
A lot has changed in that year. It at least seems like rugby has learned from the harsh lessons of 2016. Last night wasn’t just day one of the Losi Filipo redemption story, it was about healing the wounds that only an institution like rugby in New Zealand has the power to inflict on itself.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia