More than 800 people gathered in Havelock North to farewell Hawke's Bay rugby great Hepa Paewai this morning.

The life of the former Maori All Black and Hawke's Bay Magpies 1960s Ranfurly Shield era hero was celebrated at the Havelock North Rugby Club before he was taken by horse float to Dannevirke to be buried at the Pareneha Hoori Urupa.

Mr Paewai was welcomed with a haka from students from his former high school, Te Aute College, before family, friends and rugby mates shared memories and paid emotional tributes to the rugby player and family man under a marquee outside the club.

Longtime friend Simon West, who officiated the ceremony at the request of Mr Paewai, said the entire tangi was planned by Mr Paewai down to who was allowed to speak following a cancer diagnosis in December.


"We're here to celebrate the life of a legend and one of the world's great gentlemen," Mr West said.

"I don't think I've heard anybody say a bad word about Hepa."

Two of his five children, Blanche Paewai-Ashcroft and Nathan Paewai, spoke to the audience about a man who put his children before everything.

Mrs Paewai-Ashcroft said although most people remembered her father for his rugby, farming and other qualities, his greatest achievements (in his own words) were his children and everything else came second.

"I know he achieved a lot but his greatest achievements were his children...we are Hepa's legacy."

Nathan said he wished his hero had been there to see the send-off.

Mr Paewai's older brother Ray Paewai said he remembered his youngest sibling being Aotea Rugby Club's mascot in a knitted green and white jersey as a toddler.

He would charm everyone and come home to tear around the house re-enacting his favourite players moves.


"I'd like to thank Mum and Dad for giving us a brother like Hepa, he's made us proud on many occassions."

His niece Mavis Mullins, who grew up with her uncle only eight years her senior, recalled his extreme diligence and the hard work he put into in all aspects of his life.

When she was growing up they would shear all day on a farm near Hunterville and three times a week Mr Paewai would shear for nine-hours, drive for three hours to get to training for the Magpies and drive three hours home again.

A number of his former rugby teammates spoke about their friend including former Magpies captain Tom Johnson, former Hawke's Bay Rugby Football Union president Blair Furlong and former All Black Neil Thimbleby.

Mr Johnson said he was privileged to be able to be at the service to share the grief but more importantly pay tribute to such a great man.

Friend and neighbour Bob Atkinson said Mr Paewai was a fine man with a magnificent family and friends.

"He was an absolute gentleman and loved by all."

Mr Paewai, the grand-nephew of youngest-ever All Black Lui Paewai, had a varied rugby career starting at Te Aute College, before playing his first season for the Magpies at aged 18 during which he played halfback in a successful Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato in 1966.

During his time with Hawke's Bay he played 64 matches in a career spanning 12 years to his retirement from representative rugby in 1977.

He was also a New Zealand Maori representative at the age of 20 in a two-test series against Tonga in 1969.

Later in life he moved to Havelock North with his family where he became a stalwart of the Havelock North Rugby Club.