The first edition of Commentary Box Sports’ new Cult Heroes series features iconic foundation Warriors forward Hitro Okesene.
AUCKLAND WARRIORS (1995-97): 22 games – 2 tries (8 points)
NEW ZEALAND (1994-95): 5 Tests – 1 try (4 points)
Playing 22 first grade games over three seasons isn’t the traditional path to club legend status, but such was Hitro Okesene’s impact and distinctive playing style as a foundation Auckland Warrior that his is routinely the first name recalled by fans from the New Zealand-based outfit’s formative era.
The Warriors were captained by Kiwi great Dean Bell, and included Australian stars Greg Alexander and Phil Blake, and New Zealand Test stars Sean Hoppe and Stephen Kearney. But Okesene, whose achievements are comparatively modest, is spoken of the same terms of reverence by the club’s long-serving, long-suffering supporters.
— 81M (@The81stMinute) July 14, 2016
The nuggetty hooker-prop’s fearsome defence and full-throttle, head-down charges, wild black mullet and a name closely resembling nitroglycerin – delightfully apt, given his explosive on-field performances – rendered Okesene a cult hero for the ages.
Relatively unknown outside of the New Zealand domestic rugby league scene before featuring in the Warriors’ massively-hyped first match against Brisbane in 1995, it’s not often remembered that Okesene was already a Kiwi Test representative. In fact, he was among the last players to debut for New Zealand before having cut their teeth in the Australian premiership.
He had also rarely played at prop before signing up with the Warriors.
At the tender age of 17, Okesene represented hosts Western Samoa in the 1988 Pacific Cup, going down to New Zealand Maori in the final in Apia. He also played for the Junior Kiwis in ’88 (against the Junior Kangaroos) and ’89 (on a tour of Papua New Guinea) as a hooker, featuring alongside future Test greats Kearney, Hoppe, Jarrod McCracken and Quentin Pongia.
The Auckland-born, Manukau junior was about to become even more worldly, signing up with English second division club Carlisle at the end of 1989. Okesene played 68 games over three seasons for the low-profile Cumbrian outfit, which counted Bell and fellow Test star Clayton Friend as its most notable Antipodean recruits. Bell’s father, Cameron, was Okesene’s coach at Manukau, and eventually renewed his acquaintance with the industrious young forward in northern England.
He spent the English off-seasons back with Manukau – as per the NZRL’s archaic and restrictive rules of the era – which allowed Okesene to represent the powerful Auckland provincial side for the first time in 1990, while he also turned out for American Samoa in the 1992 Pacific Cup.
Okesene returned home permanently in 1994 and captained Counties-Manukau Heroes in the inaugural Lion Red Cup national premiership, leading a side that included his older brother, second-rower Paul, to the minor premiership. The Heroes were upset 24-16 by North Harbour Sea Eagles (who were skippered by Okesene’s opposing hooker, and Kiwi Test captain, Duane Mann) in the grand final, but the rugged 24-year-old’s disappointment was softened by being chosen in the Kiwi’s squad for the end-of-season tour to Papua New Guinea.
He came off the bench – with Mann starting in the No.9 – in both Tests against the Kumuls, before preparing for the Warriors’ entry into the big time. The presence of Mann and emerging dummy-half livewire Syd Eru (who would soon usurp Mann in first grade and at Test level) at the club saw coach John Monie convert Okesene into a prop.
After an eye-catching display in the Warriors’ unforgettable premiership debut, an epic 25-22 loss to the Broncos, up against Australian Test bookends Glenn Lazarus and Andrew Gee, Okesene went on to start in the front-row in the fledgling side’s first 10 games – despite being a relative lightweight for a prop.
In stark contrast to his high-profile international teammates, Okesene was living a humble lifestyle rather than that of a well-paid professional athlete, however.
“I only lived down the road from Penrose then. I was staying in my parents garage in Mangere when that first game [against the Broncos] was played,” Okesene revealed in Rugby League Week.
“To tell you the truth, I was looking at these guys that I’d watched on TV, and it was just cool to get to know them.”
Ignoring reputations and his size disadvantage, Okesene quickly developed a reputation as one of the premiership’s most hurtful defenders.
“I was only 95 kilos – these days the halfbacks weight that much. But I put my body and soul into every tackle and I didn’t see big names running at me with the ball…I just saw bodies,” he said.
“I loved to shoulder-charge and belt blokes in tackles – I’d probably be suspended every second week these days.”
He was also underrated with the ball in hand, scoring his maiden first grade try – after a typically bullish charge close to the line – in a superb away win over Cronulla on the same day New Zealand was basking in America’s Cup glory, before crossing again two weeks later off the bench against Penrith.
Okesene failed to retain his place in the Test team for New Zealand’s mid-season series against France and Australia, but after bouncing back and forth between first grade and reserve grade for several weeks, he finished ’95 by featuring in the Warriors’ last three games and was selected in the Kiwis’ World Cup squad.
The granite-like forward came off the bench in all three matches at the tournament, scoring a crucial try in the Kiwis’ heart-stopping 25-24 pool match escape against Tonga and playing in their valiant 30-20 extra-time semi-final loss to Australia.
But despite his Test player status, wholehearted performances and enormous popularity with the Ericsson Stadium faithful, Okesene made just four appearances in the top flight during the Warriors’ sophomore season, with the likes of British international Andy Platt and boom youngsters Joe Vagana and Brady Malam preferred.
Instead, Okesene became a valued member of the club’s successful reserve grade side, which was coached by his national coach Frank Endacott and included fellow Kiwi reps Aaron Whittaker, Tony Tatupu, Tony Tuimavave, Gavin Hill and Iva Ropati, and burgeoning talents such as Nigel Vagana and Logan Swann.
Coach Endacott’s son, Shane, was another experienced mainstay of that reserve grade line-up, and lauded Okesene’s influence on the team – although he revealed Hitro sometimes proved just as terrifying off the paddock for teammates as he did for opponents on it.
“Hitro was a very loyal guy, and he had a very lovely wife (Donna). But I saw the scary side of Hitro one night,” Endacott recalled.
“We’d had a pretty good result, beating St George’s reserve grade side (in Sydney). They were a good side, they had Kevin Campion in the team. Our flight got in about midnight and we thought we’d go to Hitro’s house for a bit of a party; it was about 4am and Hitro had been unconscious on the couch for about three hours.
“He woke up, didn’t say anything, but he grabbed a spear off the wall that he’d got from the Kiwis’ tour of PNG a couple of years before, and chased the four of us that were left – I think it was Aaron Whittaker, myself, Logan Swann and Bryan Henare – and I can still remember hiding under the car in the driveway trying to keep away from him.
“This was bordering on South Auckland and we were getting chased by Hitro with a spear! But yeah, he was a cult hero with his hair and his hard running, head down. And he was one of those leaders in that reserve grade side that was there to guide those younger boys through.”
Okesene and Endacott were part of the Warriors’ historic appearance in the reserve grade grand final at the end of that ’96 season, going down 14-12 to the Sharks at a sodden Sydney Football Stadium.
The affable Okesene proved even more out of favour with the Warriors’ first grade coaches in 1997, however, making just one interchange appearance – during a 24-12 loss to Perth Reds at the WACA – during the club’s Super League campaign. But he did manage another reserve grade grand final outing (another loss, 40-12 to Canterbury) before linking with English club Hull FC in ’98.
After 22 Super League games for Hull FC, Okesene revived his journeyman ways, spending subsequent seasons with Featherstone Rovers, Perpignan-based XIII Catalan, and Workington Town. Ongoing knee complaints forced his retirement in 2003, aged 32.
— . (@mad_for_rugby) June 13, 2016
The Kiwi-Samoan idol settled back in Cumbria, coaching Ellenborough Rangers in the local Amateur Rugby League competition from 2003-05 and making a crust in the construction industry; he and his family reside in Carlisle to this day.
Highly-respected anad popular at every club he served, Okesene remains a Warriors icon – despite his brief tenure in the limelight two decades ago. He made the journey back to his home town for the club’s 20-year celebrations in 2015 and was feted by fans and former teammates alike.
Even the Warriors’ greatest figures continue to pay glowing tributes to Hitro ‘Nitro’ Okesene.
“He really was a cult hero at the club, the way his hair flew about and with his style of play,” legendary halfback Stacey Jones said. “He was full on but off the field he was a real nice guy.”
— Hitro Okesene (@Hitro_Okesene) November 10, 2016
— Hitro Okesene (@Hitro_Okesene) November 20, 2016