Dual code rugby star Va'aiga Tuigamala dies at 52

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Va'aiga "Inga" Tuigamala in action for Newcastle in 2001. (Photo by Tom Hevezi - PA Images via Getty Images)
Va'aiga "Inga" Tuigamala in action for Newcastle in 2001. (Photo by Tom Hevezi - PA Images via Getty Images)

Tributes flowed on Friday after the shock death at 52 of Va'aiga Tuigamala, affectionately known as 'Inga the winger' to fans of both rugby union and rugby league.

Tuigamala earned 19 caps for the All Blacks and represented Samoa in both rugby codes, as well as being a key part of the Wigan team that dominated English domestic rugby league in the early 1990s.

"Every now and then a player comes along who touches the heart and soul of every single fan, player, coach and administrator - Inga was one of them," Wigan executive director Kris Radlinski said.

The All Blacks described Tuigamala as "an icon and an inspiration".

"Va'aiga Tuigamala is an all-time great who achieved things on and off the pitch others could only dream of," the team tweeted.

"All Black number 900, you will never be forgotten."

Tuigamala played for the All Blacks at the 1991 World Cup before switching to represent his native Samoa in the 1995 Rugby League and 1999 union World Cups.

He also won 23 union and two league caps for Samoa.

Wallaby great Tim Horan likened Tuigamala's fearsome combination of speed and power to Jonah Lomu, who replaced him in the All Blacks No 11 shirt.

"Inga was Jonah before Jonah arrived - Jonah and Inga were the two players in the All Blacks you never wanted to see with the ball," he said.

With rugby union then still an amateur sport, Tuigamala joined the paid ranks by moving to league upon his arrival in the United Kingdom from New Zealand in 1993.

In five seasons at Wigan, he scored 62 tries in 102 appearances.

He also helped Wigan win three league titles and two Challenge Cups as well as playing in the team that beat Australia's Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Challenge.

'Legend of both codes'

After rugby union turned professional, Tuigamala reverted to the 15-a-side code in 1996 by joining Wasps.

He helped the then London club become champions of England before, following a reported £1 million move, he starred for Newcastle in the northeast side's 1997-98 title-winning campaign.

Newcastle said he was "a legend of both codes who reached the absolute summit of the game".

"Rugby, and the world in general, has lost a great man," they added.

Jason Robinson, a fellow former dual code international and Wigan player, paid tribute to Tuigamala by tweeting: "Absolutely heartbroken! I owe so much to this amazing man!"

"Literally helped change my life when he came to @WiganWarriorsRL from NZ," added Robinson, a member of the England team that won the 2003 union World Cup.

"Sending all my love and condolences to the family at such a sad time. RIP brother."

After hanging up his boots, Tuigamala was heavily involved in Auckland's Polynesian community.

He ran a funeral home for a few years, helping to organise the service for Tonga's King Tupou IV in 2006, but the business went bust in 2013 because he could not bring himself to demand payment from grieving families.

The cause of Tuigamala's death has not been confirmed but he spoke last year about his health struggles with diabetes and obesity, launching a campaign to improve his own health and the health of his community.

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