When Kelly Haimona went to Italy to play rugby in 2011 he never gave up on his dream to play for the Bay of Plenty Steamers again.

Now, aged 30, that goal has been achieved with the solidly built first-five an integral member of the Steamers squad in this year's Mitre 10 Cup.

Haimona had played in both matches so far this season to add to the 15 games he played in the blue and gold hoops back in 2007 and 2008.

"I always held the Bay jersey in high regard," he said.


"In Italy my wife always got sick of me talking about how maybe one day I could go back and play for the Bay. Being an out-and-out Rotorua boy, for me to get another chance to wear the jersey is very humbling.

"I kind of took it for granted the first time and I guess that shows how immature I was back then. Now I don't take things for granted and just take every opportunity I get and give it 100 per cent."

Haimona had noticed many changes within Bay of Plenty Rugby, particularly the different level the younger players were at now compared with when he made his debut.

"Initially, when I first arrived the only player I remember playing with is Culum (Retallick).

"The biggest difference is the number of new players who have come through over these last six or seven years, so I guess it has given me an extra boost at my young age of 30 just to try and do my best to keep up with the young fullahs.

"I will definitely try and pass on as much knowledge as I can to these young guys but the culture we have in New Zealand rugby, our guys are getting more mature a lot younger than in other parts of the world.

"We have guys like Isaac (Te Aute) who is straight out of high school and I speak to him and in rugby terms he is more or less as experienced as I am."

Haimona spent three years making his mark with Calvisano in the European Challenge Cup then Zebre before qualifying for Italy in 2014.

He played 11 internationals before a broken arm prevented him playing at last year's Rugby World Cup.

He said his debut against Samoa was a definite highlight.

"We won after 10 previous attempts without a win and I played half decent which made me very happy. Facing the siva tau, the Samoan haka, was something I never thought I would get to experience.

"To get a chance to play against the Springboks was amazing and also playing at Twickenham and Millennium Stadium was the most unreal thing I've ever experienced in my life.

"Playing in front of 70 to 90,000 people in both stadiums is something a little Maori boy from Whaka would never, ever have dreamed of."

When he was not playing, Haimona loved giving back to the sport at grassroots level, working for Bay of Plenty Rugby with local kids in Rotorua and the wider Central Bay of Plenty region.