Tony Kemp hasn’t had it easy. But as a teenager in Taranaki he looked and planned well beyond the Waitara freezing works. And these days, nearly 40 years on, he can reflect on a rugby league career that went from Wellington, to the Newcastle Knights in the NRL, then to Castleford and Leeds in the UK and, along the way, 25 games for the Kiwis. A total of more than 250 first class games. He had the physical frame for that line of work. Just under 180cms and almost 100kgs. But there’s been an honesty and a determination about his approach — and that now has him in pursuit of te ao Māori, as he explains to Dale.
Kia ora, Tony. You and I have got to know each other through radio, TV, and rugby league. But there’s way more to life than broadcasting and footy. And often that can be your nan — which is true in your case, isn’t it?
Yeah. I grew up in the north with my nan, Ida Te Ao Tauri. She’d stepped in because my mum (Elizabeth Tauri) needed to take some time out.
Still to this day, Mum won’t speak about it. But, when I was a baby, and we were living in Whangārei, I lost two brothers and a sister in a drowning accident. Norman, William and Diane.
They’re buried in the Maanu urupā, just up the hill, past the hospital. My dad (Bill Ellis) is buried there too. He died not long after the drowning when I was only six months old.
So I grew up with my nan. And, as with many Māori families, I thought my grandmother was my mother and that my aunties were my sisters. That’s until my mum showed up with my second father, Piripiri Te Aniwaniwa Kemp.
They picked me up and we moved down to Taranaki when I was a child, so a lot of people think that I whakapapa just to Taranaki iwi, although I whakapapa to Ngāpuhi as well. My mum was a Tauri from the Far North and she spoke fluent Māori. So that’s what I learned to speak. I’ll never forget when I first went to Waitara Central primary school because everyone was speaking this foreign language, which was English.
But Mum never carried on with the reo. She and Dad became really involved in the community, and the reo wasn’t part of that community at that time. My parents were typical Māori working class. Dad was a freezing worker and Mum worked at the Tegel chicken factory for many years.
For the rest of my life, even today, I consider Waitara my home. That’s where I went to school, and that’s where all my good mates are. Whānau, too. I still go back there every month to see Mum , and I catch up with my mates there as well.
Mum has had so much sadness in her life but she’s given me all this aroha. That’s because of what’s happened in the past, especially losing three of her children. But, after me, there was another boy, Joseph, and two sisters, Julie and Moana.
Waitara wouldn’t have been a bad place to learn a bit about rugby league.
That’s true. That’s where I started playing the game. I was a rugby player to begin with up in Whangārei. Dad had been a rugby fanatic but, in Waitara, he fell in love with rugby league. So all the Kemps went to the local league club and ended up playing that game.
I love Waitara. I think it’s had more of a bad rap in the past 20-odd years than when I was there. At that time, industry was thriving. That’s where they built the Subaru cars. They had the Swanndri factory. The freezing works, too. And the Motunui and Methanex gas plants were there as well.
So the town was full of people, Māori and Pakehā — and so was every sports club. Being fairer skinned than most of my Māori mates, I had a foot in both camps. A lot of my mates were Pākehā, so I got to see the two sides of Waitara life.
Taranaki is slowly coming to terms with its colonising past and the racist attitudes of many Pākehā towards Māori people. I know you left there as a young guy to pursue your sporting career. But were you aware at that time of the injustice? And not just back in the past?
This is stuff I’ve got to know only later on in life, although me and my Māori mates definitely knew there was a racist undertone all through the province. Especially going into New Plymouth. But I think a big part was that Pākehā didn’t know any better.
Of course, we never got taught the real history in school. Just that that Captain Cook was a legend, when, in fact, he brought grief across the world wherever he went. I wish I’d learned as a teenager all the mātauranga that I’m learning now in my 50s, because that knowledge shapes you as a person. But I guess that’s the journey of life.
I understand that your old man was a strong influence.
He was a sort of rangatira. In the extended whanau, he looked after the kids that weren’t doing too well. Our house, a three-bedroom state house, was always full of kids. We’d top and tail at night. I can’t remember ever having my own bed in those days.
Whakawhanaungatanga was just how it went in the Kemp household. Most weekends our house was full of rugby league players sleeping there because that’s how Dad wanted it.
He’d been brought up in a pretty tough way. Us kids and my mother wore a lot of that. But I never blame him for it. He just didn’t know any other way. And it shaped the type of person that I became.
My father didn’t seem to distinguish between love and hate. He held them both within his fists. And that led to me not trusting love and not understanding hate. That’s because they both seemed the same to me.
You’d get a hiding and then you’d go and sit on your dad’s knee and he’d say he was sorry but that he was only trying to teach you a lesson. Or Mum might be getting a hiding and he’d say: “I really love her. I’m just teaching her a lesson.”
For a kid like me growing up and seeing that, but not seeing the difference between love and hate, well, you were just too afraid to love someone because you didn’t know if hate was going to follow.
It was traumatic for me watching Mum being beaten up. Getting a decent old hiding. There are guys who’ve come out of the army and being diagnosed with PTSD, that post traumatic stress disorder. And I can understand that. It was at the core of what was happening to me.
It’s no wonder I wasn’t able to feel love as deeply and clearly as I wanted to.
I’ve never told anyone this, Dale, but about seven years ago I had severe depression. One reason was that I’d never really dealt with the issues when I was growing up. My sport was an outlet and a refuge from my younger life.
So the last seven years have been a tough journey for me. Not just dealing with that but also trying to understand why people get themselves into that position.
When you were 18, you were off to a professional career in Australia, playing in the NRL (the National Rugby League) for Newcastle. You would’ve had to learn, and pretty quickly, how to handle pressure, including the hopes and expectations from your whānau.
I had a wonderful pathway into the NRL. I played twice in the New Zealand Schoolboy team. Captained them in the second year. And I played for the New Zealand under-17s, and then for the Junior Kiwis. So I’d represented New Zealand and been earmarked for the Kiwis from the age of 14.
It was as a 14-year-old, that I first saw my favourite team Parramatta. They were playing on Cronulla’s home ground. They had the likes of Mick Cronin, Peter Stirling and Ray Price. And I remember seeing these two big guys with afros just ragdolling this team that I idolised. Then I found out that these two were Kiwis. They were Kurt and Dane Sorensen from Mt Wellington in Auckland.
I remember looking at Kurt and thinking: “I want to do what he’s doing.”
Then, when I went back to school, I recall my maths teacher asking me this question: “Mr Kemp. What are you going to do when you grow up?” I told him: “I’m going to play in that professional rugby league competition in Aussie.” He called me a dreamer.
But I became focused on getting there. Made it into the junior national teams — and then Howie Tamati, who played for the same club as me at Waitara, asked my dad if I could go down to Wellington with him when he started his coaching career. So I set off for Wellington to play senior club rugby league for the Randwick Kingfishers when I was just 17.
And, within a season and a half I was in Newcastle. It was pure luck, because the scouts from the Newcastle Knights had come to the Hutt to look at Sammy Stewart, who became the inaugural captain of the Knights. And I was playing in the same game, and trying desperately to stand out because I knew these important guys were in the grandstand.
At the end of the game, they said they wanted Sam Stewart and they also wanted “the bloke on the wing, because he was trying things and seeing things that no one else saw.” That was me.
So yeah, that’s how I ended up with the Knights. There were six of us in a house there, and most of those other boys were from outside of Newcastle. Like Taree, Dubbo and Wagga Wagga. And I remember lying in my bed crying at night, just wanting to get back to New Zealand. Except that I knew this was my opportunity to break the cycle that I’d been looking at all my life.
How did you fare for support?
No support apart from Sam Stewart — and from Ann and Michael Hill who was the chairman of the club. No family apart from the Newcastle team. But my girlfriend was with me. I’ve got to thank her. She’s a Waitara girl who has whakapapa to Parihaka. She understood that this was a dream I was chasing. And back home there was my dad who really believed that I’d make it into the NRL.
I gave myself three games to get into the Knights first grade side and, in that third match, I was named in the team. We were playing Balmain who had Steve Roach, Benny Elias and Garry Jack who I’d been idolising.
I’d never done any goal-setting before. But I began writing a diary when I was 16. I’d write targets down and set time limits on them, so I could push myself towards them. I’d write myself notes like this: “Kurt Sorensen not only played for Cronulla but he also played for the Kiwis.
Then it just fell into place. Making first grade that year, playing seven years for the Knights, and going on to a seven-year career in the UK with Castleford and then Leeds.
And in 1989, I was chosen, for the first time, to pull on the Kiwi jersey. That was in Christchurch against Australia which was really meaningful and satisfying for me — more than winning any trophy or competition.
I’ve been one of the fortunate ones in the sport because I started when I was seven and, at 53, I’m still in it. A lot of my mates are off doing other things. Some not going too good, and others going well. But I had this passion for the sport at an early age and that passion hasn’t dwindled. I still love it.
You went on to coaching. Not just in rugby league but also in business mentoring and tribal affairs.
In some ways I feel like my journey is just beginning. I’ve fully immersed myself in te reo Māori, which started off as a journey just in the language but which has become a journey in te ao Māori.
My life is starting to become about who I am as a person and what being Māori means. I’ve had this sporting life that’s given me these lessons about how to coach and manage and even grow as a person because I’ve had to deal with issues that I hadn’t dealt with as a kid. Then, all of a sudden, I get this opportunity to go back into te ao Māori. I’ve fallen in love with what it means to be Māori.
Looking back nearly 20 years ago, there you were as the Warriors coach. Any of those jobs coaching NRL teams is demanding. And I imagine you found that the Warriors were hard-going, especially when you’d had so little coaching experience.
I was lucky to coach the Warriors. They had a good set of people around the club and such a strong nucleus of players that we really should’ve gone on and won a premiership.
But when I got that job, I was only 34. I was too young, and, if I could have my time over again, I wouldn’t have taken it. But, at the time, I was like: “Man! I’m an NRL coach, and here I am, this boy from Waitara who finished school when he was 15 and worked in the freezing works. I’ll never get this opportunity again.”
I’m grateful for that journey, but I think it was a preparation to get me ready for now. Not then. But I do thank rugby league, especially for putting me in that position and giving me that stepping stone.
I’ve never ever been one to big-note myself and say: “This is what I do. And this is what I’ve done”. Because none of that matters to anybody except me.
More important for me has been to give my kids a lifestyle that’s nothing like how I was brought up. Giving them every opportunity through schooling and being there for them through good or bad. And just trying to be a good father.
This is all new to me. My first dad died when I was six months old and my second father died when I was 21. So being a dad to kids who are now 26 and 23 is foreign territory for me.
In the world of professional sport, there are extra pressures to deal with. And, in rugby and rugby league, young players can be risking mental health problems, can’t they? That’s because of the prospect of big money, their own high hopes and also the expectations of their families.
Yeah. Those expectations can be a gateway to mental health issues. Young athletes aren’t screened for their mental health. In sport it’s all about physicality. Then there’s the extra risk of concussion which is only just being taken seriously these days.
I understand that the average playing career of an NRL player is two years and only 40-odd games. But families who are doing it tough on Struggle Street may see their boy as their pathway to riches because they hear of star players on mind-blowing contracts. So Mum and Dad may be hoping their son will soon be able to buy them a house and get them all out of poverty. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18- to 20-year-old kid.
That’s too common. Professional footy plays a big part in painting bright pictures. Bright, unrealistic pictures. The reality is that your boy is highly unlikely to make it. If he’s not up to it, or seriously injured, he’s going to be kicked out the back door.
And he doesn’t need the extra pressure of picking up a newspaper that says he’s playing shit. Or seeing that a fan on Instagram is telling him he’s useless.
There’s not enough talk about the damage being done by these experiences. You don’t hear about the kid who’s dropped, who’s out of money and can’t get back home. You don’t hear about the depression. Or what’s led to the suicides.
All you hear are the success stories of stars like Jason Tamulolo, Roger Tuivasa–Sheck and Benji Marshall. But for every one of those stories there’s a shitload more that could be told about players who didn’t make it.
We’ve got to do something about that. I can’t see it getting any better if the governing bodies don’t find out how to look after these kids.
I lost two whāngai brothers to suicide. I’m like a lot of Māori who’ve had plenty of issues to deal with their whole life — internal issues every day. And that’s why I’m on a journey, hoping to put all my jigsaw pieces together and be able to say: “Here’s my role in life. This is what I was put here for.” I still don’t know what that looks like. But I know I’m on that path.
I’ve been in a position of privilege to talk to tamariki, youth and even adults because of the profile that I’ve had. I’ve been in lots of schools and in programmes to help wayward youth. And I’ve written a programme with Corrections. The kaupapa is around understanding everything about yourself. Not just your talent, and your gifts, but also who you are and why you’ve ended up where you are.
Understanding all that is a major step. Sharing it is another. And so is the realisation, the knowledge that there is a way out.
For me, my journey is just beginning. My partner Janine has been a rock for me over these past seven years. She’s helped me understand that life is a journey of self-discovery and of accepting my history. Some good, some bad. But my feeling is that if I can do this, then all of our whānau can too. And we can support each other to do that.
I know you have had some real highs in playing footy, Tony. But it impresses and inspires me that you believe that perhaps the most important contribution that you have to offer still lies ahead.
Kia kaha e hoa.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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