Te Henga – Bethells Beach – has always been and will forever remain a truly special place for One New Zealand Warriors past, present and future.
Throughout the club’s history it has become established as a brutal and feared preseason training venue, the black sand and intimidating hills striking both awe and dread into many a player.
Above all, though, it is a memorial to Sonny Fai, the wonderfully talented back rower destined for an exceptional career before horrifically disappearing at sea while rescuing family members in the notoriously dangerous Bethells Beach surf on January 4, 2009.
He was only 20, having exploded onto the NRL scene in 2008 as a player of uncommon ability. The thought of Te Henga instantly evokes everlasting sadness over his loss.
Last weekend first-year One New Zealand Warriors head coach Andrew Webster took the players and staff out west for the first time since the Covid pandemic forced the club offshore for the past three years.
For Webster the visit was as much about extending the players in an exceptional training arena and further reconnecting the club with the move home as it was about paying respect to Warrior #138 Sonny Fai, reacquainting some of the group with the meaning behind the location and giving an army of new faces an education into a critical chapter of the club’s history.
After the ever-smiling Fai’s disappearance in 2009, the One New Zealand Warriors couldn’t face returning for three years; it was late 2012 before Te Henga came back on the schedule.
A few years later Webster saw for himself what the location meant when he was with the club as an assistant coach. A few players in the 2023 squad have had previous experience training there but for the vast majority of the players it was a new and mind-boggling outing.
New signings were taken aback by the eerie sense they felt being there, struck by its wild beauty.
After being worked over on the long tracts of sand and up and down the infamous, 45-degree slopes at the back of the sand dunes area, the players and staff moved down to the beach itself where club great Jerry Seuseu addressed them. Also present were Fai’s former teammates Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Wade McKinnon and Leeson Ah Mau.
Seuseu told the group: “We think in terms of the club it’s important that we reconnect with New Zealand and an important part of our history was the passing of Sonny Fai 13 years ago.”
Halfback Shaun Johnson said: “It’s important we come back (to New Zealand) and reconnect in multiple ways and this is just one of them.
“It has been a really special morning, a really big morning revisiting a place that we haven’t been to for a few years but also educating some of new team members and our younger players who don’t know the story of Sonny Fai.
“It’s something special Webby coming in paying respect and understanding of our past. It’s going to play a big role in us moving forward so this is a big step in that direction.”
One New Zealand Warriors captain Tohu Harris said Fai's tragic disappearance almost 14 years ago was a reminder to every one at the club about maximising opportunities life presents.
"It's important for the club's history that we pay our respects and mark the significance of it, I guess to gain an appreciation for what we do for a living and for making the most of the time we have not only on this earth but the time we have at this club," he said.
"Sonny obviously loved what he did and he made the most of every chance he got. It's very unfortunate that his time was cut so short but I think it's a good reminder for every player, staff member and anyone who's a part of the club that we never forget that."
Webster wants the players to use the past to create the club’s new future.
“We spoke about how important the past is so we can move forward and actually achieve what we want to achieve as a group,” he said to the players and staff.
“We just don’t get those opportunities if we don’t stop and look back for a second. Just the beauty today, boys, even the sand dunes … Sonny would have run those dunes 100 times.
“I think it’s a special place, really spiritual, and I thank the club for supporting it and everyone buying in today. I thought you guys did a terrific job.”