Great athletes have a presence about them. When their teammates sit next to them in the changing room ahead of a game, it fills them with confidence. For years Te Kaiaotea Tahuriorangi was that player for the Pikiao Rugby League Club.

The 32-year-old, affectionately known as Bully, died suddenly on Saturday, sparking an outpouring of grief from those who knew him. Tributes flowed thick and fast on social media, a sign of just how many lives this dedicated, one-club man touched.

Pikiao Rugby Club chairman Selwyn Rikiti played a major role in establishing the club 41 years ago, so he has seen his fair share of young players come through.

He said Tahuriorangi, who played in the halves, was arguably the greatest of them all.

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"Blessed with an amazing ability to single-handedly pull out magical plays to win the big games. Bully was a homegrown product and tailor-made for the big moments in the big games. His all-round game was something special; vision, speed, step, kicking and passing were all second to none."

While quiet and introverted off the field, Rikiti said it was on the rugby league field that Tahuriorangi came into his own. He would go to the ends of the earth for his team and his club.

It is no coincidence that the club's most recent Premier Grand Final wins, in 2014 and 2017 - both against Pacific, came with Tahuriorangi on the field. Both games were won in the dying seconds and Rikiti said they were two of Tahuriorangi's finest performances.

Pikiao's Te Kaiaotea Tahuriorangi celebrates a try in 2016. Photo / File
Pikiao's Te Kaiaotea Tahuriorangi celebrates a try in 2016. Photo / File

"In 2014 it was his sheer will to win, his guts and determination at all costs. Absolutely exhausted and concussed twice, the great man continued on to orchestrate one of our club's great grand final wins. A lot of our supporters were already headed to the car park convinced that we would lose. Bully wasn't having a bar of it."

Tahuriorangi started the season late in 2017, playing for the reserves who were bottom of the table when he arrived. In typical modest fashion, he led from the front and within four weeks had them in contention for semifinals.

To the disappointment of the opposition, a decision was made to bring him back into the premier side for the semifinal.

"Entering the game in the second half he made an instantaneous impression, his towering kicks worried the hell out of the opposition," Rikiti said.

"Once again we have had to come from behind to make the grand final. We achieved that and the stage was set for another epic encounter against Pacific. [Tahuriorangi] came into the game late and his class was evident. His kicking game pinpoint but again he showed true grit and unleashed a defensive effort that motivated the team.

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"With one minute remaining Pacific were in front and confident. We win the scrum, the great one spots an opportunity on the short side, steps and passes the ball to an unmarked speed man who scores and we win."

Rikiti said Tahuriorangi was "very quiet" off the field, but led by example on it.

"He was very reserved, an introvert. He didn't enjoy the limelight too much but always seemed to find it on the field. Because of that, I don't think he ever really got the recognition he deserved.

Te Kaiaotea Tahuriorangi dives in for a try during a semifinal against the Taupō Phoenix at Puketawhero Park in 2013. Photo / File
Te Kaiaotea Tahuriorangi dives in for a try during a semifinal against the Taupō Phoenix at Puketawhero Park in 2013. Photo / File

"He was very dedicated in his support of the club. He would never, ever think about playing for any other club and I know for a fact there were other clubs who would've opened their arms up to get him. From the juniors all the way through he was a staunch Pikiao man through and through."

Star players are as well respected by their opposition as their teammates, which was certainly the case for Tahuriorangi.

A post on the Ngongotahā Chiefs Facebook page said: "The Ngongotahā chiefs whānau would like to pass on our deepest condolences to the Tahuriorangi whānau and the Pikiao Rugby League Club.

"Te Kaiaotea, better known as Bully will be missed, a great loss to all and the rugby league world. A feared half on the field and respected brother to many. May you rest in peace Bully."

The Mangakino Hawks also expressed their condolences on Facebook: "To hear the passing of a true legend of the game, a legend of our zone-district, the legend of his club (Ngāti Pikiao) has saddened our rugby league community.

"Since we've been established we have had so many close encounters with our Pikiao bruthaz only to find out it wasn't to be, because of this man right here. A real magician of the game. Be fair to say we've all encountered that one play from the 'BULL'.

"On behalf of our club we send our condolences to our Pikiao whānau, Bull's whānau and everyone affected. Rest easy Bull, you will be sadly missed brutha."

Tahuriorangi's funeral is being held today at Kahumatamomoe at 10am. This will be followed by a guard of honour from former teammates and coaches at the Pikiao rugby league ground.

"Bully will be sorely missed by the club, all his teammates and club supporters. Hae re ra, a homegrown champion," Rikiti said.