He starred for Richmond through the bright days of league in central Auckland, and now Gus ‘Toa’ Fepuleai is charged with leading one of New Zealand’s oldest clubs through a period of huge change in the area.
The 1970’s – when Fepuleai came onto the scene as a talented winger – saw Richmond and Ponsonby claim three Fox Memorial Premierships between them, as they lifted the Auckland CBD to become the pride of local league during parts of the decade.
But fast forward to current day and league in the area is a different story, with both those clubs now struggling in an increasingly crowded sporting environment in a place which is rapidly losing the Polynesian influences which it was built on.
“It has changed dramatically, there are three clubs now sharing the central pool and unfortunately Richmond is the biggest loser here,” Fepuleai said.
“The demographic of Grey Lynn is changing and we do realise that, so we need to engage more with the new community.
“We have started running sessions with the community, our members and supporters in Grey Lynn to explain our vision for the club and what we are all about, which is success, performances and cultural harmony in the neighbourhood.”
Considering rugby league has dominated a big part of his life, it’s surprising to learn that Fepuleai’s first passion was the other rugby code.
“My early years were about watching the All Blacks on black white TV screens back in Western Samoa. I idolised all of them but by big idol in the 1970s was Bryan Williams,” he says.
“I started off with rugby, making the 1st XV at Seddon High School (now Western Springs College) playing fullback. I enjoyed playing that position as there was a lot more room for you to do your stuff from the back.
“It was mostly friends and those that I was associated with who were telling me to come over to rugby league because it was a much better game, and for me it was.”
Fepuleai went on to be named on the wing for the Kiwis in 1978 and the next year helped lead Richmond to the Fox Memorial Premiership with victory over Otahuhu.
That same year he was selected to play for Auckland against Great Britain, proving a strong performer in an eventual 18-10 loss to the visitors who were winding up a tour which saw them swept 3-0 by Australia in their Test series.
Another Fox triumph followed in 1980 for Fepuleai and Richmond, in a period which he singles out as his favourite memory in rugby league.
“Winning the Fox Memorial trophy against Otahuhu two years in a row is my standout memory, and I’m still friends with the lot of those players who are alive,” he says.
“Back in my day it was undoubtedly the Otahuhu Leopards who were the toughest to come up against, their side was just about all representatives; Mark Graham, Hughie McGahan, Gary Prohm, the Wright brothers (Owen and Nick), Roger Rota and on and on.”
By the 80’s the most brutal times to be on a rugby league field were coming to an end, as the game and technology evolved to make it harder to get away with too many unsavoury acts.
“Olsen Filipaina was one of the hardest. The Thompson brothers from Manukau too,” Fepuleai adds.
“Back then it was about putting your opposition on the ground no matter what, so that involved some nasty stuff that went on and getting away with it. You wouldn’t now with the cameras everywhere.
“In one of our games we played against Mt Wellington in a final, their team included James Leuluai and some other great players. At half time we were getting hammered, our coach Joe Gwynne sent one of our players out with special instructions, he did the job eliminating the danger man. Enough said.
“But there was some spectacular league played in that era too. Freddie Ah Kuoi was something special for Richmond, a great leader and motivator of groups.
“I thought Byers Beazley from Mangere East was a great thinker of the game at first five, it’s a pity he didn’t go on to further honours.
“But the people with you in the trenches, battling with and against them, are still good friends now and always will be all because of our great game, it taught me a lot about life, the good times and the not so good, especially at the mighty Richmond Rovers.”