Willie Los’e on the job for Sky Sport. (Photo supplied)

Willie Los’e who died (aged 55) last month was, like a number of other international rugby forwards with Māori and Pacific whakapapa, an imposing figure. He was big and abrasive enough on the field to be comfortable in the generally unfriendly world inhabited by lock forwards.

But because his playing days were followed by a 20-year career as a sports broadcaster, he became even better known as a radio and TV rugby commentator and media personality. 

So it was no surprise that there was a special and moving farewell to him the other day at Eden Park, the home of rugby in Auckland.

Willie played for Kelston Boys’ High (where he was head prefect) and then he went on to the Waitematā club, the Auckland and North Harbour reps, the NZ Colts, a couple of clubs in Italy, and another in Japan. And — no doubt, most satisfyingly — he represented Tonga at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Willie’s Tongan credentials came from his dad Tavake Lose who was from Faleloa, Foa and Ha’ano in the Ha’apai island group in Tonga.

Willie’s mum, Kuini, was of Tainui, Ngāti Rereahu ki Maniapoto descent.

Among the speakers at the Eden Park farewell were Duane Mann (a rugby league mate), Michael Jones (whose rugby and other achievements have led to his knighthood) and Niva Retimanu (a broadcasting colleague and friend).

Here we have edited extracts from the reflections of Duane, Michael and Niva.

 

Willie in his sixth form year at Kelston Boys’ High School. (Photo supplied)

Duane Mann: ‘He was always a talker, always a doer.’

Our relationship with Willie and the Los’e family started with our parents.

Our mothers were strong wāhine Māori, the matriarchs of our whānau. Loving, firm, strict, and disciplined. Our fathers, both born in Tonga, were the opposite — very quiet, gentle giants.

And when Willie and I were juniors on the footy field, our mums were our number one supporter. So, apologies to all the opposition mothers for the harassment you might’ve received. And all the referees that copped a bit of abuse from them.

Kelston was home to about 700 households at the time. We moved there in 1962, and I think the Los’e family arrived that year too. We all came from central suburbs like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby.

Our house on Cobham Crescent was just a walk across the park, a skip through the alleyway, a jump over the neighbour’s fence, a sidestep past a dog, and through the back of the school fields. The Los’e family was on Nile road.

At the time, Kelston had six schools — two primary schools, an intermediate school, a deaf unit, and the two high schools, Kelston Boys’ and Kelston Girls’. They formed in 1963 when the main college separated. There was a Foodtown, a shopping plaza and a Georgie Pie. And when the Westward Ho Tavern opened in the late ‘70s, it was a big deal.

All the families knew each other. And I’m talking Kelston, New Lynn, Glendene, Glen Eden and everywhere in between. Willie had a childhood where the people who lived around us were his aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters. And we were all cousins.

Willie has talked about how parts of his childhood were like Once Were Warriors, but that’s not something you see as a kid. For him, it was just his world.

Willie’s father, Tavake, was a baker, along with his uncle Nino and lots of other family members. They worked on Cobham Crescent at the block of shops there. Willie and his siblings would all work there at different times. I even had a stint making croissants and pies.

In 1974, there was a bakers’ strike and a sugar shortage. Willie’s older brother James was in charge of delivering bread and pies around the neighbourhood. And that was before you got sliced bread. I remember seeing Willie with his older siblings. He was at St Leonard’s Primary then, and was still pretty small.

Willie would deliver right through his secondary school years, and he’d bring bread for all his mates. You could see how much he loved his mates through the simple act of giving out kai.

Willie and his siblings after their father’s funeral in 1991. Dian, Pilima, James, Joseph, Willie, Harry, Richard, Siu, Mary. (Photo supplied)

Even back then, Willie was known for his confidence. He made sure he looked good. I mean, he found baby oil well before our Tongan flag bearer. He’d come to school polished and shiny, smelling good, in his brothers’ clothing. He was smooth. He was cool. And he absolutely knew it. And he had one of the best afros. It was immaculate.

At school, Willie volunteered to help with the intercom. These were supposed to be short messages in the morning as kids arrived, and at lunchtime. Well, nobody could get him off it. He would talk constantly through the day and play music. He did that all through intermediate and high school. He was always a talker, always a doer. And he loved to dance. After outgrowing the local Westward Ho dancefloor in his teens, he went to nightclubs like Zanzibar, Grapes, Keeley’s and De Brett’s.

Willie during his Auckland NPC playing days. (Photo supplied)

And then there was this footy thing.

Rugby league was actually Willie’s first love. He first hit the league field as a member of the mighty Glenora Bears. The only problem was that league didn’t quite love him back. Willie just couldn’t hold on to the ball — he had terrible hands. As a junior, they’d kick off to him, the ball would come to him, and he’d drop it. Then the ball would go out along the back line, and it would get to Willie, and he’d drop it again. I remember his mother yelling at him to hold the ball. He was still a small kid back then.

I reckon someone must’ve said to him: “You know Willie, you can’t catch, you don’t like being tackled. You come off and your jersey’s still clean. You’d be good at rugby.”

And, of course, he’d go on to have a fabulous rugby career. When he got to high school, he found his feet and started to grow. This short boy ended up outgrowing all his brothers. By the time he was 15, he was over six foot. Everything went through the roof — his height, his confidence, the baby oil, his hair, the girls, you know. But he was street smart too. Willie would go on to become part of the smartest tight five in Kelston First XV history. He also always had mana and humility in him.

In 1983, Willie cemented his spot in the First XV. We co-shared the Auckland schoolboys’ rugby 1A title with Auckland Grammar and Willie was a key part of that. Then, in December, Kelston undertook its largest overseas tour. They went to the UK, Japan, Wales, England and California. And Willie was a crucial member of the team.

He established himself as a lock and a leader and became the captain not long after. That tour was really the making of Willie as a rugby player. I guess we just didn’t realise he’d spend another three or four years staying in the seventh form at Kelston Boys’.

Willie, moe mai rā, e hoa. We’re going to miss you. You’ve made a lasting impression on all your Kelston brothers. And when we have our 1983 tour reunion next year, we’ll be paying respects to you.

 

Sir Michael Jones: ‘We may not be going too well this year, but at least we can look good.’

Michael Jones and Willie in action for Auckland. (Photo supplied)

After Willie left the hallowed halls of Kelston Boys’, he came to our rugby club — Waitematā.

A lot of young men in West Auckland tended to find their way to clubs across town, but Willie stayed true to where he was from. He knew his roots and came home to Waitematā.

And I’m so grateful for that. At the time, Sir Graham Henry was in charge at Kelston Boys’, He’d send the rugby boys to different clubs. Obviously, the most intelligent got sent to Waitematā. The second tier probably went to Ponsonby, and then after that they went to the suburbs.

The rest were just farmed out to the Glenora Bears and they played league because, so we said, they couldn’t make it in rugby. But yeah, we still love our man brothers at Glenora Bears.

At Waitematā, we’d heard of this young superstar coming out of Kelston Boys’, a rugby prodigy. And when Willie walked into our changing shed for the first time, we were so impressed with his physical presence. He was young, six foot four, and full of muscle.

We joked about how at Kelston Boys’, first period must be biceps, second period is chest, third period is shoulders, and so on. Me and Eroni Clarke went through Henderson High School, so we didn’t quite get that experience.

At Waitematā, Willie was the new kid on the block, and we had some old-timers. I’d been there a few years and I think I was an All Black at the time.

But he still did things his own way and had so much mana that he became captain of Waitematā at just 20 or 21 years old. I love that about Willie. He didn’t care what people thought and that’s a reflection of his whānau. He lost his parents when he was young, and his older brothers and sisters looked after him, shaped him. He’s a product of a wonderful village and community.

Willie in Ponsonby Auckland, 2021. (Photo supplied)

At Waitematā, Willie was ready to go to the next level. What really impressed us was his presence. The guy had style and loved fashion. And yeah, we made fun of him for it. But he had panache, he had class, and sophistication.

Willie just brought a different element to the club. And in our communities here in West Auckland, we hadn’t really seen anything like it. There was probably a bit of it when John Hart was there in the ‘70s, and maybe Lindsay Harris in the ‘80s. But nothing quite like Willie. This man had it in spades. He was so debonair.

One season, Willie got the coaches and senior team into town for a fine dining experience. Willie was affiliated with the restaurant and waited on the team. He had tough Westies eating delicate entrees, small main meals on huge, expensive plates, and desserts fit for the Queen. After the meal, the team went to the closest takeaway to get a burger and chips.

Barry Riley (Riles), who helped coach Willie in the prems at Waitematā has recalled some of Willie’s memorable changing shed moments. Like one time, while they were getting ready to play, Willie was commandeering the prems full-length mirror, priming himself. Riles asked him what he was doing and Willie goes: “We may not be going too well this year, Riles, but at least we can look good.”

Also at Waitematā, Brent Semmons remembers Willie as one of the first players to wear speedos in the game, but they were more of the G-string variety. After matches, Willie would wear his dressing robe around the changing sheds. I remember he did that at Auckland too. And while we put all our gear in old Waitematā club bags, Willie always had his airline carry-on bag with all his moisturisers.

At Waitematā, Willie set high standards, for himself and the team. He wanted to succeed as a number eight loose forward and was part of a young rebuild team that went on to play in the quarter finals of the Auckland Gallagher Shield.

As a young player, he also helped lead a new era of violence-free rugby, preferring to win through fitness and skill rather than intimidation and punches. That shouldn’t be lost on us. I never saw Willie get too aggro, but he was intimidating enough, tackled hard, and ran hard. I never saw him get in a fight. Violence wasn’t part of his gig.

In 1991, Willie became the Auckland NPC cap number 1176. He had eight games and 10 points from two tries that season. Willie’s recollection of those tries got more dramatic each time — they went from being 10 metres out to him running 95 metres to cross the line.

Then, after three years with Auckland, North Harbour came up with a big pay cheque.

In his broadcasting, Willie’s connection to his Westie roots would come through. He’d always mention Kelston, or something about Waitematā. There was something about Willie’s voice and his commentary that made you feel good.

He was loved by so many.

Willie, manuia lou malaga. Moe mai rā, King, e te rangatira. Mālō. Fa’afetai.

 

Niva Retimanu: My orphan brother

Willie at work for Sky TV at the Baileys National Sevens in Rotorua, January 2016. (Photo: John Cowpland / www.photosport.nz)

Willie and I became mates years ago. His parents died around the same time my parents passed away. So we had an instant connection and we called each other orphan brother and sister.

I describe Willie as the three D’s — determined, dedicated and disciplined. After he retired from playing rugby, Willie set his sights on making his dream job a reality. He wanted to be a radio host at Newstalk ZB. Willie was determined to be remembered for more than playing rugby. He was hellbent on getting a qualification before he came to Newstalk ZB. He wanted to earn the right to work in that newsroom.

So he went to radio broadcasting school in Wellington. And after he graduated, he came back to Auckland. I’ll never forget when he first walked into Newstalk ZB. He had a huge smile on his face and he turned around and said: “Sister, are we the only coconuts that work here at Newstalk ZB?”

There were all these white faces in the room, and I said: “Yes, yes, we are.”

Willie grinned and pumped his fist. One of the producers walked past and said: “What’s up with him?”

I said: “He is a trailblazer.” And at that moment, I understood the significance of his role and the reason for his big smile. Because Willie was the first Māori-Tongan, the first Pasifika, sport talk-host on radio.

As a role model, Willie reiterated that message to young Māori and Pasifika, that if you can see it, you can be it. At the same time, Willie was being mentored by sports broadcaster Murray Deaker. Deaks took him under his wing and became a father figure. Willie called him “father” right up until the end.

Willie made the most of every opportunity. He’d sit there in the studio with Murray, watching, learning. Back in those days, you didn’t have a laptop. Willie had pen and paper and took notes every chance he got. He did that for nearly a year before he got a job and got paid. I thought it was crazy. But that was Willie. He was dedicated and passionate about radio.

In the Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport Family, Willie was nicknamed the Tongan Tornado and the Tongan Prince. He had undeniable presence. He towered above the Radio Sport boys, and always stood out. Willie wore colours like fuchsia, lemon, burnt orange and lime, and rocked it.

He had personality to boot, on and off air.

Willie, we love you, and we miss you. Ia manuia lou malaga, orphan brother.

With his children Shiraz and Jordan at home in Auckland. Around 2003. (Photo supplied)

© E-Tangata, 2022

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