'Turning himself around': Inga Tuigamala's brave health battle before tragic death

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 22 May 2022, 9:23am
Inga Tuigamala, pictured with Sir Graham Henry, went on a mission to turn his health around on Match Fit and managed to reverse his type two diabetes condition. Photo / Supplied
Inga Tuigamala, pictured with Sir Graham Henry, went on a mission to turn his health around on Match Fit and managed to reverse his type two diabetes condition. Photo / Supplied

'Turning himself around': Inga Tuigamala's brave health battle before tragic death

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 22 May 2022, 9:23am

When Inga Tuigamala arrived for the first day of shooting Match Fit, he was battling type two diabetes and unable to run due to the state of his health. 

The former rugby and league star was among 10 former All Blacks who lined up for season two of the hugely popular show that sees ex-players try to tackle their physical and mental health challenges. 

By the time filming wrapped up – just a month before he tragically died – the 52-year-old had incredibly reversed his diabetes, had the second-best cholesterol level of the cast and could keep up with his colleagues on some fitness challenges. 

Ahead of the new season's premiere on Three, former All Black Charles Riechelmann has revealed how hard Tuigamala – known lovingly as "Inga the Winger" - worked on his fitness, and how his death from a heart-related issue rocked all the Match Fit cast members. 

"It has been quite shattering," Riechelmann told the Herald on Sunday. 

"Pretty much every day apart from Sunday we would be training together or riding a bike and having a laugh. Then the next minute that person is not there . . . it is pretty devastating. 

"I miss the old bugger." 

Former All Black Charles Riechelmann says Inga Tuigamala's death has left him shattered. Photo / Neil Reid 

Match Fit unites 10 former All Blacks from the late 1990s to early 2000s under the mentorship of Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Graham Henry and New Zealand rugby legend Sir Wayne "Buck" Shelford. 

New recruits for the second season include Tuigamala, Piri Weepu, Kees Meeuws, Glen Osborne and Brad Mika. They, along with five returnees from season one, are challenged to get back into shape physically and mentally before returning to the field in the series finale. 

Riechelmann said Tuigamala was "really competitive" during the show, in the process transforming his health. 

All the challenges Inga Tuigamala faced on Match Fit were first cleared by his own medical specialists. Photo / Supplied 

"He couldn't run, he got a bike and he started cycling," he recalled. 

"When we started cycling, he would be miles behind us. By the time the show finished, he was keeping up with us, and he was loving it. 

"This is a person who diagnosed with type two diabetes before the show started and he had reversed it by the end of the show. He was really positive about things . . . you could see the change from the start of the show, to the end of it, of him as a person." 

The show's fitness trainer Alex Flint said it was clear that Tuigamala started the show with a "very low" fitness base. 

Tuigamala had started on a mission to get fitter – and in the process encourage his Pasifika community to take their health seriously – before being approached to go on Match Fit. 

Inga Tuigamala goes on a rampaging run for the All Blacks during the 1992 series against the World XV. Photo / Photosport 

And Flint said it had been "magical" to see what Tuigamala achieved by the end of filming. 

"We obviously had to be very careful with everything Inga did; he was medically supervised and had his doctor's blessing with everything that went on. 

"But he left no stone unturned. When we looked at his bloods, everything was good . . . he was turning himself around." 

Match Fit creator and executive producer Bailey Mackey – chief executive of Pango Productions – said Tuigamala's death was "massively impacting" for everyone who had worked so close to him. 

"He had a nickname 'Pappa Bear'," Mackey said. "He legitimately was the big 'Pappa Bear' for everybody. We had obviously finished the series when he had passed away . . . but everyone is tight, everyone is connected and a lot of the boys were still training together." 

Mackey said the production "asked a lot of Inga to come on the show and bare his soul". 

Last weekend Mackey, Osborne and Flint ran the half marathon at the Hawke's Bay Marathon in Tuigamala's memory. Riechelmann was on hand to offer moral support. 

Match Fit fitness trainer Alex Flint has revealed every challenge Inga Tuigamala was put through on the show was cleared by the former All Black wing's doctor. 18 May 2022. New Zealand Herald phot 

It was a mark of respect of how much the cult hero was loved by his TV show mates; and also an acknowledgement of how committed Tuigamala was to turning around his fitness. 

The brotherhood within the cast earlier saw them rally around Tuigamala when he received the shattering news during the last day of shooting of his sister's death. 

Helen Verry – a youth pastor – died after an accident at West Auckland's Church Unlimited on January 30. 

"Then three or four weeks later he [Inga] passed away," Riechelmann said. "When his sister passed away, that hit him pretty hard." 

Match Fit creator and producer Bailey Mackey says the much-loved Inga Tuigamala was known as 'Papa Bear' by his mates on the soon to be aired show. Photo / Jason Oxenham 

Tuigamala died on February 24; a week on from his sister's funeral. 

Tuigamala's great friend, and fellow Match Fit cast member, Eroni Clarke later said his mate died from a "heart-related" issue. 

Riechelmann is one of the cast members to have completed both series of Match Fit. 

He took part in season one after his weight ballooned during the first Covid lockdown in early 2020. 

"During that first [lockdown] we thought we'd go running and get fit . . . but then just end up becoming a good chef instead," he said. 

"I put on quite a bit of weight, you end up getting lazy and Bailey rang up about the show. I needed a good kick up the arse to get fit and healthy again." 

The show also sees the ex-rugby stars addressing mental health challenges, with Riechelmann revealing his "toughest" struggle had been going through a divorce about 11 years ago. 

"During that time that was probably the hardest . . . mentally that was pretty touchy as well." 

The ex-footy stars who have been involved in season one and two of Match Fit were renowned for their courage on the rugby field. 

Off it – in the full glare of TV cameras – they are again showing courage of a different kind; baring their souls and showing the public that were just as vulnerable as everyday Kiwis. 

Charles Riechelmann, centre, says he like many other top players have struggled off the field once their playing days have ended. Photo / NZ Herald 

Riechelmann said it was stance worth taking, saying all those involved hoped they could provide encouragement to viewers of all ages to take care of their physical and mental health. 

"When you finish playing rugby, to be honest the mental side of it is half the battle," he said. "You are up here getting paid all this money, then you are back down here and working a real job. 

"A lot of the guys have their own little demons, issues or problems. There is a vast number of us that struggle. 

"[On Match Fit] we were a bunch of guys who got on really well, we knew each other, we joked a bit . . . but the underlying fact was that our health was pretty average. 

"To get into the show and do something about it was pretty cool." 

>> Season two of Match Fit premieres on Three, Wednesday, June 8, at 7:30pm. 

Match Fit viewer to producer: "You saved my life" 

Bailey Mackey is no stranger to viewer feedback from the vast array of shows he has brought to New Zealand TV screens. 

But one response tops all others – a Match Fit viewer who approached the award-winning Pango Productions executive producer and chief executive in a bar after a Māori All Blacks match and told him that he would be dead if he hadn't been encouraged to look after his health after watching season one of the show. 

A season one Match Fit viewer told Bailey Mackey the show had helped save his life. Photo / Jason Oxenham 

"One guy who told me that Match Fit had saved his life," Mackey told the Herald on Sunday. 

"He wanted to thank me because he had effectively just been sitting on the couch. He was an ex-footy player and after seeing the guys doing things on Match Fit, the next day he put his running shoes on. 

"He was in good shape and all of his mates were patting me on the back. . . that was pretty cool. It was one of the most moving and emotional pieces of feedback I have ever had." 

Season one of Match Fit was a ratings winner when it screened in late 2020. 

Former All Black Piri Weepu and ex-coach Sir Graham Henry on the Match Fit set. Photo / Supplied

The initial series was four episodes long, with season two to be extended to six shows. 

And now a combined 10-part package of Match Fit could be going international. 

Mackey is currently travelling in America and said he "will be laying the seeds to sell this overseas". 

- by Neil Reid, NZ Herald