Former All Black Va’aiga Tuigamala dies at the age of 52

Former All Black Fesolai Va’aiga Tuigamala, known as “Inga the Winger”, has died at the age of 52.

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

His strong performances on the field were recognized in 2008 when he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby and community.

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

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

The church played an important role in his life.

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

Va''aiga Tuigamala pictured in 1998.

Following news of Tuigamala’s death, Robinson wrote: “Absolutely heartbroken…I owe so much to this amazing man! Literally helped change my life coming to Wigan Warriors from New Zealand. Sending all my love and condolences to the family at such a sad time. RIP brother.”

When Tuigamala received a traditional Samoan tatau two years ago, he told 1News, “My journey in tattooing 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 hospitalized him in April. Determined to bring about positive health change, he started Project ODICE (Obesity Diabetes Intervention Champion Evangelist) in hopes of inspiring others.

1News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver recalled Tuigamala on Breakfast as an inspirational character for children.

“For pacific kids and for all kids to be honest but for pacific kids to see someone they’re related to, how amazing is that? I think that really touched people, that he came from a dizzying height and then had his own challenges,” she said.

She said his legacy is his compassion and “just caring about his community.”

“He had been there, did that and he wanted to stop others, the boys, from going through the same thing, so… such a good man. Dear man, dear man.”

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

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