Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Every rugby league team needs an enforcer.

And, back in the day, there was none better than Kevin Tamati.

Not only could he hold his own as a blockbusting front rower for the Kiwis and English side Warrington, but, if there was an opposition player getting out of line back in the seventies and eighties, no sooner had that upstart stepped over the line, than he was fast retreating at the hands of Tamati.

Of course, there was that most infamous of occasions, as the Kiwi’s did battle with their Australian counterparts in the cauldron of Lang Park on June 18 1985, when Tamati and Greg Dowling were both sin binned for fighting. Not content to leave activities on the field of play, Dowling, having something of a death wish and clearly deciding that a sideline brawl with the menacing Kiwi front rower would be a simple form of euthanasia, provoked Tamati as they were about to walk into the tunnel.

"There was derogatory remarks about my colour, verbal abuse, racial abuse about who I was and my ancestry," Tamati revealed many years later.

The words used included " nigger" and " black bastard," he said.

Tamati was incensed with the racist sledging and when he felt Dowling's hand on his back, he snapped and a fight ensued.

If Dowling had held his own moments earlier in the initial melee, that’s where an even contest ended. Dowling, unfortunately for him, discovered that Tamati was no ham on rye. Infuriated, Tamati took to his Aussie foe, fair pummelling Dowling who got his comeuppance as he was beaten to a bloody pulp.

One does not need to extend the mind too far to realise that that sort of behaviour on the field these days would be frowned upon, not to mention incurring a hefty suspension. But, it was more common place back in those much simpler times.

So events that night sure seemed stranger than fiction itself. Maybe, it was a case of life imitating art such is the hero worship that is devoted to this one piece of sporting history.

His proclivities for the occasional brouhaha aside, Tamati had a stellar career.

Introduced to the world on September 23 1953 in the small rural Hawke’s bay settlement of Bridge Pa, he was fortunate to come through a golden era of rugby league in New Zealand.

Along with the likes of Mark Graham, Hugh McGahan, Olsen Filipina, he helped form the backbone of a team that Kiwi coach of the time, Graham Lowe, had holding their own with all comers.

It took awhile for Tamati to rise to the rarefied heights of test football, though.
He may have been representing Wellington from the youthful age of nineteen in 1972, but it wasn’t until he was twenty-six in 1979 that he finally broke through to gain his Kiwi debut against England.

Once there, he became a permanent fixture through until 1985 making twenty-two appearances, and scoring one try. Those were the days of the three point try.
Before he got to that stage in his career, though, he had the small matter of some hard graft for seven years.

Having shifted to Wellington in 1971, he took up rugby league, playing for local club, Petone Panthers.

Talent was not lacking in the young Tamati, for in 1972 he made his representative debut for Wellington. At 5ft10in and ninety-five kilo’s, he wasn’t exactly a monster in the same vein as we see in the modern game. But what he lacked in size he more than made up for with toughness.

Many years later in 1984, he would play for his then club, Northcote Tigers, in Auckland, on a Saturday and then fly to Wellington to play for the Randwick Kingfishers on the Sunday. The modern day player may back-up occasionally the day after a rep game, but certainly not every week as Tamati did.

So, then, mental and physical toughness aplenty there was on the part of the Hawke’s Bay native.

No doubt this fortitude helped him make his way in what could be a brutal sport at local level throughout the seventies with fifty-seven appearances for Wellington. His last appearance for his province came in 1982.

Having strutted his stuff on the local scene now for ten years, and being a regular in the Kiwi’s for three years, new challenges were needed.

What better place than England to find something that offering. Not only would he have the chance to take his career to the next level, but, also, see the world. This he did, when he signed for Widnes in 1982. It turned out to be a rather fruitful experience for Tamati, culminating in an appearance in the 1984 Challenge Cup Final, as his side completed a 19-6 victory over Wigan. In that Wigan side was his cousin and fellow Kiwi rep, Howie Tamati. Nothing like a bit of friendly family rivalry.
Some twelve months later, he was to embark on the next episode in what was already a long and distinguished career with a three year stint playing for Warrington. As at Widnes, finals glory marched its way into his existence when in 1986 he took his place in Warrington’s 38-10 victory over Halifax.

Two years later, Tamati drew the curtain on his illustrious career.

After sixteen years in the sport, the last six of which were spent playing professionally, league had become a lifelong love affair.

Instead of heading back home, he stayed on in Britain and began coaching. Over an eleven year period, Tamati spent his time at Salford and two other lesser clubs, Chorley and Whitehaven.

Tamati was inducted into the New Zealand Rugby League legends of league in 1995. He is an Auckland Rugby League Immortal.

These days, he is back in New Zealand and is currently the Rugby League referee coordinator for the Hawke’s Bay Rugby League.

Which is absolutely fantastic to see a former player giving back to the game that gave him so much.

And most would agree that Tamati deserves to be remembered for all the good he has done and achieved in the game.

Not one incident all those years ago.

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