The courage and indefatigable spirit of a local rugby player in the face of huge adversity was celebrated during the second Rikki Nathan Memorial match at Ahipara on Saturday.
The hosting Te Rarawa senior club rugby team eventually claimed the trophy by convincingly beating the Invitation XV. Although much of the proceedings was one-way traffic, the Invitation side actually put together the most popular try of the day, veteran Mangonui rugby warhorse Thomas Rogers crashing across the Te Rarawa line midway through the fourth and final quarter, only minutes after entering the fray.
The Te Rarawa side gathered to say hello to their old teammate lying in rest at the nearby urupa and tell him they were once again about to march into battle in his honour and before kick-off, both teams stood side by side for a minute's silence.
Te Rarawa coach Pops Arona admitted the win went some way towards avenging the defeat in the inaugural challenge last year, and noted the onus remained on the losing team to ensure the trophy remained full at the aftermatch.
Of course the result was never of major relevance. The day was always going to be about about remembering a person whose legacy is now inextricably linked with the club. Yet there was no reason to not allow the game to serve a variety of purposes.
Arona said the plan had been to make the Rikki Nathan Memorial Trophy one of the major goals of the new season to a team notorious for struggling to get out of the starting blocks in terms of pre-season training, and that's with the competition kick off now less than two weeks away.
Of course, Te Rarawa are not the only team in the Far North to display this tendency. Each year, summer is finishing later even as competition administrators appear more determined to get the competition under way earlier.
And there were signs the side was starting to gain momentum, particularly in the news that former coach Merv Rawiri — who guided the team to multiple, back-to-back Bell Shield wins around the turn of the decade — was jumping back on board.
Arona described this as a "massive coup", noting Rawiri will likely bring with him a number of players from the defunct Western club (once a major force in Mangonui rugby) and wider Herekino area.
There is also a core group of key players who were unable to be at the Rikki Nathan Memorial due to other commitments but who will definitely be putting their hands up to be part of the 2018 winter campaign.
The pre-season match also a fundraiser to help the whanau of the treasured Te Rarawa player Vance Pure, currently recovering from recent and fairly major surgery. With a significant sum raised via a koha at the gate along with raffles and donations, those behind the venture acknowledged the business community for contributing generously to the cause and all who supported the kaupapa.
Another highlight of the day saw the Arona brothers, Tiano and Ilai, presenting the Te Rarawa club with several jerseys they earned whilst playing for various national representative teams.
Ilai (and following his last appearance with the team as the next day he departed to live and work in Whangarei and play for Hikurangi in the Whangarei-based Bayleys Premiership in order to be more closely monitored by the Northland talent scouts) handed over his 2016 New Zealand Area School Barbarians and 2017 Cook Islands national team match-shirts, while Tiano presented his Cook Islands vs New Zealand Heartland jersey from 2015.
The second Rikki Nathan Memorial ended fittingly with the serving of an incredible aftermatch supper including roast sheep and pig on a spit with all the seafood trimmings and desert: "It was beautiful!"
On behalf of organisers, Arona gave special mention for making Saturday's tribute another hugely successful and memorable occasion to Rikki's partner, Arli and the Brydon whanau, along with Thomas and Joeleen Rogers.
* Rikki Nathan was a promising and talented No7 who played for a number of Mangonui clubs but chiefly Te Rarawa. He passed away in late 2016 age 24 but the grace, composure and dignity he displayed throughout a long and debilitating battle with illness inspired all he came in contact with.