A diving accident off the Te Araroa coastline has claimed the life of East Coast and heartland rugby hero Morgan Waitoa.
Police confirmed this morning that a body had been located in the search for a man who had earlier gone missing and failed to resurface off the East Coast coastline on Wednesday.
"While formal identification has not yet taken place, Police believe it to be the missing man," they said in a statement. "Police's thoughts are with the man's family at this time."
Tributes have started to be posted online for the hugely-respected Waitoa, including from the Waiapu Rugby Club who wrote: "RIP Cuzy Nuts Morgan Waitoa, What a Man What a Legend."
The Ngāti Porou East Coast union has also posted: "It is with great sadness we acknowledge the sudden passing of rugby legend Morgan Waitoa. Morgan was a Ngati Porou East Coast Centurion and was held in great esteem by the whole Ngati Porou Rugby community."
Waitoa both played and then coached the Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby team.
He holds the record for most games played for the province at 115 appearances. He is just one of three players to have represented the team in 100 games or more.
Waitoa, 61, first represented the East Coast as a teen in 1979.
His incredible longevity in the side saw him still playing provincial rugby in 2006, a staggering 27 seasons later.
Positions he played for during his rep career included second-five, flanker, lock, No 8 and prop.
His time with the provincial battlers saw him play during three of their most successful seasons: winning the NPC Third Division title in both 1999 and 2000, and then being part of the team which lost the 2001 NPC Second Division final to Hawke's Bay.
Waitoa was still playing club rugby until several seasons ago, as well as turning out for the East Coast Legends, a team featuring players who had previously played rep rugby for the province.
He said in an interview with Radio Ngāti Porou in 2013 that he was "still enjoying it".
He joked that like every other player he had been injured, but the key to his longevity had been "looking after" himself.
"It is about keeping your body fit," he said.
When asked if he still went out on training runs, Waitoa laughed before telling the station that he "still went out hunting".
"It is about doing active things."
Some of the match highlights of his provincial career included playing in East Coast's 1987 Ranfurly Shield challenge against an All Black-stacked Auckland side at Eden Park.
Auckland won the game.
"We had a good build up that year," he said.
"They were the world's best players [back then]. To get to mix up with them was all right."
A decade later he was a member of the East Coast team who the star-studded Auckland team beat 115-6 in a Ranfurly Shield challenge hosted at Ruatoria's Whakarua Park.
Waitoa was also part of the East Coast-Poverty Bay combined selection who played the touring Scotland team in 2000 in Gisborne. The Scots won 51-10.
Police said the death will be referred to the Coroner.