Before there was Jonah Lomu, there was ‘Inga the Winger’.
Va’aiga Tuigamala was the most destructive winger – and arguably player – on the planet during the early-1990s, terrorising opponents with his power and pace behind a 110kg frame.
Samoa-born Tuigamala broke into the all-conquering Auckland provincial side in 1988 and made his All Blacks debut the following year, aged just 20. Quiet as a church mouse off the field, he was an unstoppable juggernaut on the paddock.
But it wasn’t until 1992 under new coach Laurie Mains – after the previous season’s World Cup failure prompted a mass cleanout – that the cult hero became a regular fixture in the New Zealand Test line-up.
Inga’s barnstorming runs and infectious smile became symbols of a challenging new era for the All Blacks after the yardstick team of world rugby had stagnated.
Like Jonah, Inga had his limitations defensively, but also like the late Lomu his skill-set was underrated and his ball-running ability was irresistible.
Tuigamala had some memorable tussles with Wallabies legend David Campese, famously coming out well on top in their final clash, a 25-10 All Blacks win in Dunedin in 1993.
Lured to English rugby league giants Wigan at the peak of his powers in 1993, Tuigamala finished with the modest stats of five tries in 19 Tests for the All Blacks (though he added nine tries in 20 tour match appearances), but his impact during his relatively brief time as a superstar cannot be understated.
Tuigamala picked up plenty of silverware and was a tremendous asset to Wigan, playing over 100 games and scoring more than 60 tries – predominantly as a centre. He was named in the inaugural Super League Dream Team in 1996.
Lamentably, he never played for the Kiwis in the 13-man code, but he did represent the Graham Lowe-coached Samoa side at the 1995 World Cup, scoring two tries in a 56-10 thrashing of France.
With rugby union adopting professionalism, Tuigamala enjoyed an off-season stint with Newcastle in the 1996-97 winter (Super League was played during the northern summer), before switching permanently with Newcastle a year later.
Tuigamala played 23 rugby union Tests for his beloved Samoa, and despite packing on a bit of beef, he still possessed the pace, skill and defensive intimidation to be a valuable presence in the midfield into his 30s.
A tireless worker off the field, Tuigamala was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby and the community in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours.