Christmas is always a time for giving but equally it’s one for remembering, remembering cherished ones lost since the last festive season and in years past.
Among them are Vodafone Warriors members and fans, friends and family and rugby league players including former Kiwis.
Tragically one of those players is one of the club’s own, promising 17-year-old Luke Tipene, taken in dreadful circumstances in the early hours of November 1. For the second time in less than six years the Vodafone Warriors and the wider rugby league community shared in grief mourning the loss of a player who had his life and career all in front of him.
Special thoughts are with Luke’s family and friends this Christmas, as they always are at this time with everyone who remembers Vodafone Warrior #138 Sonny Fai so fondly. His spirit is ever-present at the club almost six years after he disappeared in the surf at Bethells Beach; just like him, Luke was irrepressible, sharing the same smiling disposition and a desire to chip in and help.
It was also deeply sad to learn of the loss of two very young Vodafone Warriors fans in 2014 – 18-year-old Jessie Manuele, from Wainuiomata, and six-year-old Hayden Bridson, from Gisborne.
Jessie died unexpectedly in March. Her uncle James Tala told us his niece was the most devoted Vodafone Warriors fan he knew.
He said Jessie had set her heart on attending the Vodafone Warriors’ clash against Wests Tigers at Westpac Stadium on March 29. Instead about 20 members of her family went to the game in her honour, hanging up a banner which when interpreted said: Jesse loves Manu(ele) Vatuevi.
“With all due respect to the other players in the team her favourite, by a country mile, was Manu,” said James.
“She loved not only the way he plays the game on the field (hard and fair) but also his attitude off it (humble, down to earth and always smiling, just like Jess).
“The plan was to get some of the players to sign Jessie’s banner after the game but, unfortunately, their seats were too high up to get close enough to the players. My sister and her family were all deeply disappointed that they couldn't get autographs for Jess and left the stadium feeling pretty low.
“However, my sister in-law Peggy, who was also at the game wearing a T-Shirt with Jessie’s name and picture on it that we made up for her funeral, ‘stalked’ the team and chased them to Wellington Airport.
“She got to meet some of the boys, including Manu and Shaun (Johnson), and explained to them who Jessie was and how she had been such a huge fan and they signed the back of the T-shirt.
“By all accounts the players were all extremely kind and sympathetic and didn't hesitate to offer whatever comfort they could give and for that we are eternally grateful.
“Back home Jess' Mum was presented with the T-shirt and the look of absolute joy and amazement on her face when she saw the autographs (especially Manu's) on a T-shirt with Jessie’s image on it brought everybody to tears.”
Vodafone Warriors Jerome Ropati and Sebastine Ikahihifo were pleased to meet Hayden Bridson when they were in Gisborne for some community appearances leading up to the Vodafone Warriors’ New South Wales Cup game against Cronulla in June.
They were saddened, though, when Hayden’s mother Jess wrote to the club last month.
“A few months ago when the Vodafone Warriors came to Gisborne to play, Jerome and Sebastine visited Mangapapa Primary School and they met my two boys Hayden and Seth,” she said.
“They were good enough to take time to learn about my six-year-old Hayden as he had a very rare (form of) dwarfism and was severely special needs. They had their photo taken with Hayden and Seth, which was magical.
“I just wanted to let Jerome and Sebastine know that Hayden passed away on September 14.
“He contracted a severe lung infection and was unable to recover. Seth was at his side and held him as he passed away, something no nine-year-old boy should ever have to do.
“But it's because of amazing moments that he shared with his little brother, like meeting the Warriors, that has kept Seth smiling even through his loss.
“I want to thank the Warriors team, especially Jerome and Sebastine for giving my big kid Seth an experience that he treasures, and for their genuine interest in my little hero Hayden. They were just wonderful. Thank you so much!”
During the 2014 season the Vodafone Warriors acknowledged the loss of one of the club’s original members Larry Heslip, who passed away in May. At the first game of the season back at Mount Smart Stadium – the match against Newcastle – Larry was paid tribute to on the big screen. Larry sat in Bay 29.
It's poignant to remember ex-Kiwis who died during the year.
One was Tommy Baxter, widely regarded as among the country’s finest players (many would rank him in the top two or three. Named in New Zealand's Team of the Century, Baxter (kiwi #320) was a world-class centre who graced the international scene in 29 Tests from 1949-1956; including tour matches, he made 94 appearances for the Kiwis, second only to Jock Butterfield.
Baxter had the distinction of playing in five winning Kiwi Test sides against the Kangaroos and was a key performer in the back-to-back series wins against Australia in 1952 and 1953.
Two of Baxter’s team-mates Auckland hooker Roy Roff (Kiwi #350) and West Coast second rower Bob Neilson (#348) also passed away this year.
From the Mount Albert club, Roff was in New Zealand’s touring squad to Australia in 1952 but didn’t make the Test team during the Kiwis’ series win. His one Test appearance was against Great Britain at Carlaw Park in 1954. That same season he was in the Auckland team which beat the tourists 5-4 in a spiteful encounter at Carlaw Park.
Like Roff, Neilson also toured Australia with the Kiwis in 1952 without playing a Test. However, he appeared in all three matches in the 1953 home series against the Australians.
Having won the series 2-1 in Australia in 1952, the Kiwis extended their run of successes to four straight wins by taking the first two matches of the 1953 campaign, Neilson scoring New Zealand’s match-winning try in their 12-11 victory in the second Test to secure the series.
Another Kiwi lost during the year was Aucklander Ernie Wiggs (#431). He played five Tests for the Kiwis, the first at home against France in 1964, another one-off appearance at home against Great Britain and all three matches at 1968 Rugby League World Cup.
A burly winger or second rower, Wiggs was also a prodigious goal-kicker who consistently topped or was near the top of the points-scoring charts for the Otahuhu Leopards and the Mount Albert Lions in Auckland’s club competition. He later coached Otahuhu and also the Mangere East Hawks, taking the Hawks to the Fox Memorial grand final in 1978. Along the way he operated in a player-coach role, graduating to the front row in his later playing days.
To all the families and friends of these former Kiwis, heartfelt thoughts go out at this time of the year when there will be a big void for the first time.
Also lost during the year were 1975 Kiwi Josh Liavaa (#518), Len Jordan (#287) and 1963 Kiwi John Sparnon (#419). While Liava'a and Sparnon weren't used at Test level, centre Jordan appeared in eight internationals from 1946-1949. He was the oldest Kiwi at 94 at the time of his death; his son Chris played five Tests for the Kiwis in 1977 and 1978.