Chiefs, Bay of Plenty and Māori All Blacks back Sean Wainui has died in a car crash in Omanawa, near Tauranga, on Monday morning.
Bay of Plenty police issued a statement this morning saying one person had died after a single-vehicle crash at McLaren Falls Park.
Police were notified that a car had crashed into a tree at around 7:50am. A family member confirmed to NZME that the 25-year-old father Wainui was the driver.
The sole occupant of the vehicle died at the scene. The Serious Crash Unit attended the scene, and enquiries into the circumstances of the crash are ongoing.
Tauranga City Council said in a media statement the park would be closed today due to the crash and emergency services were at the scene.
A St John spokeswoman said two ambulances were called to the scene.
Wainui played 53 games for Taranaki before shifting to Bay of Plenty this year. He also played 44 games for the Chiefs, nine for the Crusaders and represented New Zealand Māori since 2015.
In June he scored five tries in a Super Rugby Transtasman victory over the Waratahs, the first player to ever do so in Super Rugby history.
Of Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou, Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi and Te Āitanga a Māhaki iwi, he was a vocal advocate for te reo Māori, proud of his Māori heritage and especially passionate about his whānau.
Wainui was born in the small settlement of Whatatutu near Gisborne and raised in Auckland before attending Takapuna Grammar School where he was a stand-out as captain of the first XV before making his debut for Taranaki in 2014, while still a teenager.
Taranaki head coach and Chiefs forwards mentor Neil Barnes, having watched an 18-year-old Wainui emerge through the New Plymouth Old Boys club, was left devastated by the news.
"When I broke the news the whole crew was shattered," Barnes said. "We'll take time to digest this and talk about how we can best show our respect to him and his family.
"He is so respected by everybody – probably one of the most popular and respected people in our team without doubt.
"He's not gifted with out and out pace like a lot of outside backs but he makes up for it by going as hard as he can. His preparation work to play is second to none. He's probably the fittest person in the Chiefs by a mile and his work ethic off the paddock is awesome.
"He's such a good person so this is tragic. He's a really good community and family man. I feel so sorry for his partner. He's got a young one as well. It's terrible for their whole family."
In a statement, New Zealand Rugby said it was a dark day for rugby: "One of Rugby New Zealand's tallest totara trees has fallen in the world of rugby. To you Sean, our Rangatira, we farewell you to the outspread arms of the multitudes who await you beyond this earthly realm. You leave us here bereft and drown in sorrow as we weep for you. Rest well in peaceful repose."
NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson extended all of rugby's condolences to Wainui's wife Paige, their children Kawariki and Arahia, and their wider whānau.
"Our thoughts are with Sean and his whānau, particularly Paige, Kawariki and Arahia, and we offer them our full support at what is the most difficult of times. We know Sean's passing will be felt deeply by everyone involved in rugby, particularly his Bay of Plenty and Chiefs teammates, and we share their sorrow and their shock.
"We ask that media give the Wainui whānau space to grieve as we all reflect on a young life that has ended far too early."
New Zealand Māori Rugby Board Chair Farah Palmer said: "Today rugby is mourning one of our Rangatira, but our first thoughts are with Sean's whānau. They have lost a father, a husband, a brother and a son and we share their grief and their tears.
"As a player we all saw what this young tāne was capable of and the passion and talent that he brought to the teams he represented, but we also saw a role model for young Māori, a caring father who was passionate about his culture, his language, and his identity. He will be sorely missed."
Māori All Blacks, Chiefs and former Bay of Plenty coach Clayton McMillan added: "Sean was an incredibly talented individual and held a great amount of mana among his fellow teammates and the wider rugby community. He epitomised everything you could possibly ask for in a player. He will be remembered for being a passionate, hard-working, proud Māori who was an exceptional player but more importantly father and husband.
"He was an influential member in the teams he has been a part of, and his presence will be missed. Our sincere condolences to Paige, Kawariki and Arahia and his wider whānau at this difficult time. We are offering them our full support along with our players and staff."
Chiefs Rugby said in a post on Instagram they were mourning following Wainui's death and their condolences were with his family.
"One of Rugby New Zealand's tallest totara trees has fallen in the world of rugby. To you Sean, our Rangatira, we farewell you to the outspread arms of the multitudes who await you beyond this earthly realm. You leave us here bereft and drown in sorrow as we weep for you. Rest well in peaceful repose," they said.
"Our sincere condolences to Paige, Kawariki and Arahia and his wider whānau during this incredibly difficult time. We love you [Sean Wainui]."
Bay of Plenty rugby historian Brent Drabble said Wainui was a "top bloke".
"He only just came to us this year – he played one game for my club Whakarewarewa here in Rotorua before he went across and played against New South Wales and scored four tries for the Chiefs."
Drabble said he was in shock. He said he only met Wainui once but it was clear "what a neat kid he was".
Wainui made his debut for the Bay of Plenty against Tasman in August and scored a try, he said.
His last game for the Bay of Plenty was last month's Ranfurly Shield match.
Taranaki rugby union historian and statistician Matthew Shaw said Wainui was one of the region's "more celebrated players".
Wainui made the New Zealand under-20s in Taranaki in 2015 and was their 51st New Zealand Māori All Black which was "something he'll be in the record books" for, he said.
"He'll be very much missed."