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Harpie the Fijian giant

Kameli Rakoko
Saturday, July 12, 2014

APISAI Toga was a giant Fijian in every sense of the word and he was the first Fijian player to play in the Australian rugby league competition.

He joined St George under coach Alan Gibson. Close friends called him Harpie and was said to be the best of Arthur Walker's Fijian signings in the early 1960s and was a fearsome opponent.

Here are a couple of write-ups taken from the St George rugby league club website.

A report by Alan Whiticher: "Under Alan Gibson, Saints' flourished as a team and responded well to his no nonsense coaching style. He brought out the best in a number of players including popular forward, Apisai Toga. The powerful Fijian often found running wide of the ruck.

Apisai came to St George in 1968 and was joined by brother, Inosi Toga in 1969. It was Apisai who said that when he pulled on a St George jumper, he felt "ten feet tall" And he wasn't alone with a number of players lifting in 1970.

After 22 rounds, Saints finished third and successfully qualified for the semi-finals for the 20th consecutive year and then went on to the preliminary final.

Saints biggest win of the season was against Norths in round four 18 April when the Dragons downed the Bears 40-20.

"The Giant Fijian forward, along with brother Inosi Toga, became crowd favourites with Dragons fans. Apisai Toga spent two seasons with Lancashire club Rochdale in the late 1960s but during training prior to the 1973 season the likeable clubman died of tetanus poisoning from a coral injury he had suffered in Fiji during the off-season."

In early 1973, many were shocked when Apisai Toga collapsed and died from tetanus poisoning after training one night.

From 1968-1972, Apisai made 103 appearances for St George with 65 in first grade.

Rugby League historian, author and journalist Ian Heads named Toga in his all-time Polynesian/Pacific team, made up of players who appeared in the NSW competition or NRL. Size, speed, skills, it's hard to imagine them being bested by many sides.

The team are: Lote Tuqiri, Noa Nadruku, Israel Folau, Nigel Vagana, Jarryd Hayne, Olsen Filipaina, Stacey Jones, Sonny Bill Williams, Kurt Sorensen, Stephen Kearney, Petero Civoniceva, Issac Luke, Ruben Wiki (c), BENCH: Dane Sorensen, Willie Mason, Apisai Toga, Fred Ah Kuoi.

Roy Horrigan says: "I worked for many years just across from Jubilee Oval, and after work we often had cooling ale at the Royal Hotel in Carlton. Many of the Saints players after training used to come in. Apisai and his brother Inosi used to play the guitar and sing songs, wonderful, friendly guys, great players, and great memories. When they shook your hands you stayed shook."

Here is a story from a Cronnula fan: "I remember as a young kid watching a game at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah, the mighty St George Dragons, it must have been in the early 70s, were playing against my beloved Cronulla Sharks.

"At that time Saint George had a man mountain in the forwards named Apisai Toga in their ranks. Big Apisai was a real crowd favorite, whether you followed Saints or not. Everyone loved big Apisai, except I guess the poor bloke that he was running at.

"The game sticks in my mind as poor Apisai snapped his leg during the game and was right in the middle of the paddock. His leg snapped and it sounded like a whip cracking. Play was stopped immediately and the medic was called into the centre of the field.

In those days the medics were members of the St John Ambulance society, all volunteers, wearing their St John uniforms and all usually carrying a big wooden first aid box with a big red cross on it. None of this converted golf buggy crap with flashing revolving lights, it was all straight out of WW11.

As the game stalled and more and more medics attended Apisai, some of the crowd were getting a bit restless.

As one of the more senior medics jogged off the field to get a rigid canvas stretcher, the crowd "gave" him a bit of curry.

He emerged from under the stand with the stretcher and was just about to run out on the field when some of the hecklers started up again.

"Come on will ya, we come to watch the footy" or words to that effect, one of the hecklers yelled out.

The senior medic never missed a beat, he turned to the crowd and yelled as he headed off towards the centre, "It's alright for you, you blockhead, I've gotta carry the big bullock.

"It broke all up who heard. Ridicule turned to sympathy as the medics struggled to carry poor Apisai past us. He was one big forward."

Last year Saunaka vilagers collected $11,000 and constructed a rugby ground and named it Apisai Toga Oval.

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