The Manawatu rugby league community is in mourning after a car crash near Feilding claimed the life of Kia Ora club chairman George Tama Rata.
Father Sonny Rata and brother Tura Rata - best known as blues musician Bullfrog Rata - paid tribute to George yesterday, describing him as a soft-hearted, well-liked man who never took a backward step.
George, 51, was killed when his car left the road and ended up in a culvert on State Highway 54, Feilding, about 5.30pm on Monday.
He was driving home to Palmerston North from an IT Services job in Hunterville and was the sole occupant of the vehicle. His death has been referred to the coroner.
As a young man George Rata was a sidestepping standoff. He was gifted enough to play premier rugby league at age 14 and later for both Manawatu and Central Region representative teams.
He loved the game and continued to play top level rugby league into his late 40s, his father said.
"He always used his brain rather than his brawn. He made the breaks, then he handed it off for someone else to score."
His sporting prowess came from growing up in the Ratas' Tremaine Ave home where the lawn was a hotbed of rugby and cricket games.
The middle child in an eventual family of five, George always punched above his weight - sometimes literally.
"In his first year at Palmerston North Boys' High, I was in fifth form and George was being bullied by a guy in my form," Tura said. "He responded by breaking the guy's jaw and I was hauled before the principal.
"He never looked for a fight but he never took a backward step either."
Tura described one game of schoolboy rugby league when George's team was being outmuscled by boys from Auckland who did not look their age.
"In one of the huddles George told everyone that they were big but if we punched them in the head they would cry. So someone punched one of them and sure enough they cried and the whole momentum of the game just changed."
After making a living in his teenage years working at the Hong Kong Restaurant, George learned computer skills and spent much of the rest of his life in that industry.
He worked for Advantage Computers, with his sister Jo at Medlab, and in the Palmerston North City Council's IT department, before taking a position at IT Services.
He was a well-respected man in Palmerston North and was never short of friends, Sonny said. "At his 21st on Tremaine Ave you couldn't get a park up the street," Tura said.
Manawatu Rugby League spokesman Miki Haddon said George was a passionate Kia Ora man.
He became the chairman of the club when Sonny retired after 30 years at the helm, but despite his allegiances he always knew when to argue for the good of Manawatu Rugby League, Haddon said.
- Manawatu Standard
Did the Key v Cunliffe debate change your vote?Related story: Support slips for National and John Key