Somewhere in an attic, in a house up in the north eastern corner of England, there is, along with other rugby league memorabilia, an old Warriors jersey.
There’s the number 10 on the back, signalling that it was worn by a prop forward – which it was, 20 years ago, when Hitro Okesene, a 100kg Kiwi Samoan, pulled it on for the Warriors for their first-ever NRL match.
That was a heartbreaker game where, in front of an anxious, hopeful and finally saddened Mt Smart Stadium crowd of nearly 30,000, they lost 25-22 to the Brisbane Broncos.
It was the magic of the little Broncos halfback, Alfie Langer, who turned the game around for his team.
Hitro’s contribution wasn’t as significant. But, for a couple of seasons, he was a crowd favourite here. As a prop he had a responsibility for running the ball back into the heart of the opposition when the Warriors fielded the ball from a kick-off.
And Hitro, or “Nitro” Hitro as he was sometimes known, won special affection and admiration for his fearless, almost kamikaze, style on those runs. Long, straggly mullet flowing. Legs pumping. Hard-charging. Massive collision looming. Straight up the guts. Then Kapow!
Every club has men carrying out that thankless, bruising job.
But, through the years, the Warriors have had a few who have been particularly damaging. Joe Vagana, for example. Iafeta Paleaaesina too. Ruben Wiki. And, back in the beginning, Hitro Okesene.
He became a sort of cult figure – and he won the same kind of following in the UK where he first played for Carlisle up in Cumbria in that north-eastern corner of England. That started even before he linked up with the Warriors.
And then, post Warriors (where he played 23 games), he was winning over the home fans for the Hull Sharks, then the Featherstone Rovers and finally Workington Town. He did some coaching in the UK too. But these days he works for a construction firm.
And he’s well settled with his wife (Donna) and three kids in a village half an hour’s drive south of Carlisle.
He’s a long way from Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei, Shaun Johnson and the other modern Warriors. But he’s far from forgotten.
What was the feeling in the camp before you took the field against the Broncos that day in 1995?
Before the match, we were pretty nervous because of all the hype that had been going on for a couple of years – when people knew there was going to be a Kiwi team. The public didn’t really know how we were going to start against these seasoned professionals. So there was excitement. But a few were thinking: 'No. They aren’t going to do well against these Australian teams.'
One of the famous images in Kiwi sport is of the Warriors following your captain, Dean Bell, on to the ground at Mt Smart Stadium. What do you recall about that moment?
I remember the lady in the tunnel, trying to organise us before we came out. I remember the fire, a massive haka and everyone cheering. You couldn’t hear anything else. It was a great experience – it was awesome. Then seeing, on the other side, these Broncos, who I’d watched on telly. And now we were lining up against them. It was a great thing.
And your memories of the game?
First of all, we couldn’t hear anything except the crowd. We couldn’t hear ourselves talking. The noise from the crowd was drowning everything out. If you were standing ten metres away, and we were trying to put a move on, we’d be shouting – and we still couldn’t hear each other. Going down 10-nil pretty quick was a bit disheartening, but that was only early. There was plenty of time to get points on the board.
We were happy to get that first try [by Phil Blake] and get our confidence up and play some good league. It felt like, as the game went on, maybe we could do it … maybe we could win.
Maybe we became a bit complacent, and got excited by being in front. But, as you know, that man Alfie Langer popped up and turned it around for them.
Your impressions of that first season 20 years ago?
I think it was successful, even though we finished just outside the playoffs. You had to take into account that we lost two points against Western Suburbs for fielding an extra man in that game – and losing those two points put us out of the playoffs. But, as a whole, I think the season was a success, because we could hold our own against these seasoned teams.
On a personal level, what was it like being in that squad?
I was only signed as the reserve team hooker. I got my chance to play prop because Andy Platt was injured. That was something new to me because I’d been a hooker all my life.
Then playing with these guys that I watched for many years, and to be with them for the inaugural season – it was amazing. I was like: Man. I’m playing with these guys … with my heroes. Having a chance to mix with them, I was just thankful.
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