Two men killed in a late night crash had strong links with their local rugby club, where they were regarded as talented and exciting players.

The two 23-year-olds from Kaeo died in a two-vehicle collision on State Highway 10, about 5km south of Kaeo, about 12.15am yesterday.

The men and a passenger were in a south-bound car heading up Kaeo Hill, when the vehicle collided side-on with a north-bound ute towing a stock car on a trailer.

The driver's side of the south-bound vehicle, which was carrying two male passengers, bore the brunt of the collision.

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The southbound car was crushed to half its width and shunted into a ditch beside the road.

A rear seat passenger with back injuries climbed from the wreck before emergency services arrived.

The driver of the northbound ute suffered chest injuries, including broken ribs, from her seatbelt. She and the surviving passenger from the car were taken to Bay of Islands Hospital in Kawakawa.

The woman's husband had been driving a vehicle in front of his wife, and narrowly missed colliding with the southbound car, before it collided with the ute.

The dead men played for Kaeo Rugby Club, and club president Allan Martin said they were "very exciting rugby players" who had been with the club for years.

"I think it's such a shock to everybody ... we're just trying to comprehend it."

The Bay of Islands Rugby Union also offered support to the families of the men.

"Kaeo has lost two promising young rugby players ... they were players who came through the grades of the club.

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"Our condolences to both families and the Kaeo rugby club."

A St John spokesman said he could not understand how the car's rear-seat passenger had survived, or managed to get out of the wreck on his own.

"It's a shame, a couple of young lives wasted," he said.

It is believed that speed, a wet road - a light drizzle was falling at the time - and alcohol were possible contributing factors.

An officer from the serious crash unit spent the night examining the scene and is due to return today to continue his investigation.

Fire Service volunteer support officer Colin Kitchen praised the work of volunteer firefighters from Kaeo and Kerikeri, and other emergency personnel. Several of the Kaeo firefighters knew the victims. All had been offered counselling.

Northland police issue safety warning ahead of holiday weekend - pg3.