Gisborne mayor Meng Foon has hailed the Vodafone Warriors’ historic visit one of the city’s most successful sporting events in decades.
Just-retired veteran Vodafone Warrior Jerome Ropati and back rower Sebastine Ikahihifo saw more than 2000 pupils at local schools during a two-day community programme on Thursday and Friday.
And on Saturday a crowd of about 5500 was at Rugby Park for the Vodafone Warriors’ VB New South Wales Cup clash against Cronulla, a match the ‘home’ side won 16-12. The two teams had arrived in Gisborne on the same chartered flight on the day of the match.
“It was an awesome game and a real honour for Gisborne to host it,” said Foon, who, along with the Gisborne Tairawhiti Rugby League, led the bid to bring the Vodafone Warriors to Poverty Bay.
“Having so many people turn up was fantastic and the day itself was glorious after all the rain we’d had.
“We had two top-quality teams here and the people of Gisborne certainly showed their support.
“We’re grateful it all happened and we hope we can do this again in the future.”
Foon said Rugby Park hadn’t seen a sporting event of such magnitude since the Springboks played Poverty Bay in the opening match of their divisive 1981 rugby union tour.
Gisborne headed off bids from other centres to host the match on what was a bye weekend for the Vodafone Warriors’ NRL and NYC teams.
Vodafone Warriors general manager football Dean Bell said the club’s first NSW Cup home game played outside Auckland had been an outstanding success.
“Meng and his team in Gisborne organised a fantastic few days with the school visits and the game itself,” he said.
“We really appreciate what they did and the way the NSWRL and the NRL got behind the venture. They’re extremely supportive of growing rugby league outside the game’s traditional strongholds throughout New Zealand and Australia.
“It was brilliant to see such a big crowd turning up to support the two teams and to see the reaction in the schools and around the community.
“We’re certainly interested in returning to Gisborne.”
The Vodafone Warriors fielded a side including eight players with NRL experience while the Sharks, who won the NSW Cup premiership last year, also featured a number of players boasting first-grade experience including George Rose, Nathan Stapleton, Matt Prior, and Tupou Sopoaga.
Bell said the Sharks appreciated the warm welcome they received and were keen to be involved in future opportunities to promote the game in New Zealand.
Both teams were among the 400 guests for a post-match dinner at the Gisborne Cosmopolitan Club when foundation captain and No 1 Warrior Bell presented Rangi (No 117) with a Vodafone Warriors jersey.
Now employed as KiwiSport Rugby League Officer for Sport Gisborne Tairawhiti, Rangi made one NRL appearance for the Vodafone Warriors in 2004 and won the Clubman of the Year Award.
He has made a remarkable recovery from a serious spinal injury suffered when he was playing for the Wynnum Manly Seagulls in 2008.
A high-profile spectator at Rugby Park was Police Minister and East Coast MP Anne Tolley. She said she thoroughly enjoyed the occasion and was delighted to see the community coming together in such a positive way at the alcohol-free and smoke-free event.
Also making the trip to Gisborne and lending his support in any way he could was the indefatigable Sir Peter Leitch, the Vodafone Warriors’ ambassador and 19th man.