The Hikurangi Stags rugby league club has immortalised its "guardian angel", Connor Rau, after the 9-year-old died last year.

Connor, who played for the club's under-11 team, was hit by a truck while crossing Kamo Rd in Whangārei in June last year. He had been a member of the club since 2015 as an under-7s player.

The Hikurangi Stags rugby league club has immortalised Connor Rau on the new jerseys with a loving message on the sleeves. Photo / Michael Cunningham
The Hikurangi Stags rugby league club has immortalised Connor Rau on the new jerseys with a loving message on the sleeves. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The Hikurangi club, strongly linked to the Rau whānau, has memorialised Connor through a heartfelt message printed on the sleeves of their jerseys this season across the club's five teams.

"He's sort of a guardian angel over the club now," Stags chairman Joe Rau said.

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"It's still sad to this day but we feel like we have someone watching over us and we can just smile and play footy."

Rau, also Connor's uncle, said his nephew's passing shook the club because the young player was a familiar face to all with his parents both heavily involved with the club.

"It shook me because I'm his uncle and I'm the chair of the club, but a lot of people in the club and even our [wider community] all remember him as a baby," Rau said.

"[Connor] was a character in the club, he'd always be around the club, getting cheeky to all our premier players."

Hikurangi Stags rugby league players (from left) Ethan Halaapiapi, Nikau Boutet-Manning, Chey Beazley, Joe Rau, Jesse-Tai Turner-Rau and Njyah Beazley. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Hikurangi Stags rugby league players (from left) Ethan Halaapiapi, Nikau Boutet-Manning, Chey Beazley, Joe Rau, Jesse-Tai Turner-Rau and Njyah Beazley. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Approaching the 2020 season and looking to redesign the club's kit, Rau said it was a great opportunity to honour their fallen teammate.

"Last year we had four different teams playing in different jerseys so it looked like a bit of a mess, so it inspired me to say, 'How can we honour the young fella?'.

"At the time [Connor] passed away he was a member of our club - we probably would have done it for anyone who passed away in those circumstances."

The club's new jerseys also featured the names of prodigious Stags alumni Dylan Brown, Paul Turner-Rau and Lee Turner-Rau, all of whom now play for various National Rugby League clubs and had donated to the new kit.

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Despite the tragedy of Connor's death, his uncle said it had rejuvenated the club with more players and volunteers returning for the 2020 season. Since October last year, the club had raised up to $20,000 for new gear through donations and community initiatives.

Joe Rau, Connor's uncle and club chairman, said his nephew's passing had prompted the club to change its culture for the better. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Joe Rau, Connor's uncle and club chairman, said his nephew's passing had prompted the club to change its culture for the better. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Rau, who had been with the Stags since 1996, said the club's culture had also changed. Historically a club that prioritised winning above all else, the Stags now focus on participation as its premier side returned to the Northland rugby league premier competition this year after a three-year absence.

"Our mentality from a premier perspective was pretty ruthless, we took no prisoners in the way we played.

"We haven't won a game out of our three games [this year], but we just look around and say, 'Awesome, we've got people wearing the jersey'."

Rau said the perception of the club was slowly changing in the community.

"We've played at Blue Goose [Otaika Sports Park] for the last month and people have been yelling on the sideline and I just say, 'That's not us any more, we are here to play the game'."

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Chey Beazley reflects on the time he spent playing with young Connor Rau. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Chey Beazley reflects on the time he spent playing with young Connor Rau. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Chey Beazley, who played with Connor for about two years, said his teammate was a "happy" and "speedy" kid on the field. He said he felt proud to wear his friend's name on his jersey as he played the game they both loved.

"You feel it through your body, [it makes you] pumped for the game."

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