Scotty Stevenson: Pasifika rugby heroes meet to give back to Papatoetoe

Junior Poluleuligaga. Photo / Getty
Junior Poluleuligaga. Photo / Getty

Salvation stretches like a strip mall along the length of Buckland Rd as it snakes its way through Auckland's south. There is no shortage of venues in which to find forgiveness along this length of bitumen, and throughout this suburb. This is Papatoetoe, where the prayers of Pasifika are made, if not always answered.

It is early evening, a Saturday. Kids are playing on the footpaths outside the churches, school campuses and driveways of their homes, their smiles outshining the headlights on the cars that drive past. Two young Mormons on mission are making their way back to Temple. If colour were not a barrier to perception, the milieu would be typically suburban, typically Auckland.

This is not a typical evening however, for tonight the Papatoetoe Rugby Football Club is celebrating its 70th jubilee. The rugby here had begun once the war was over, played on farm paddocks. There was a trough for washing, and they had to clear the dung off the field before games could commence.

You could say the fans hit the shit before the shit hit the fan.

Rugby grew. The town grew. The Queen drove through in 1953. Papatoetoe High School was built a few years later, and Aorere College a few years after that. Women sewed bras and knickers for Berlei and Bendon. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake opened the Nestle Factory, and the door to the increased industrialisation of the region. Mayor Bob White opened the Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Papatoetoe Rugby Football Club adopted the town slogan as its own: Kia Mahi Tahi - let us pull together, and a wooden hall was built where once stood a small canvas hut.

Tonight, the celebrations are being held in the Kolmar Centre, Papatoetoe's all-purpose home of sport, rather than that old, leaky club house down the path. That is set for demolition soon; its doors are boarded over, tagged. Some of the old-timers don't like that they have to share their new digs with hockey, football and netball, but they'll come around.

The man who greets me at the door is known around here simply as "JP", though rugby fans around the world know him as halfback Junior Polu for the fact that few commentators could pronounce Poluleuligaga.

Even if they could, the ball was usually at the wing by the time they'd reached the end of it. He has a well-earned beer in his hand after a day looking after junior rugby and the premier side, and overseeing the set-up for the big occasion. Junior's post-playing life is consumed by one ideal: to make Papatoetoe rugby a force once more.

Now 35, Junior represents a generation of Polynesian men who populated professional rugby around the world - just as their parents came to populate places like Papatoetoe - and who are now looking for a way to give back. The room tonight is filled with young Pasifika men, all bow-tied and blazered, ready to celebrate their chapter of this club's unfolding story. There is another generation here too, older, mainly Pakeha, for whom the club remains a constant in the changing face of the town that become a suburb that became South Auckland.

Kia Mahi Tahi. Charlie Faumuina, a product of Papatoetoe High School, has come. His wife Rachelle has been instrumental in organising the evening. Jerome Kaino has come. His son sleeps in his lap as dinner is served. Patrick Tuipulotu, arm still in a cast, has come too.

They have come because JP has asked them to come, because clubs like this need them to come, because they want to come. And long may they continue to come - to schools like Aorere and De La Salle and Papatoetoe High, where these talented kids learn the game and from where this club will find its next generation, this 70-year old club in the church-belt of Southside, where JP is preaching a gospel we can all agree on.

- NZ Herald

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