Without Sonny Rata, rugby league in Manawatu wouldn't be the same.
Palmerston North's Rata is receiving a Distinguished Service Award from New Zealand Rugby League for his 57 years of service to the sport in Manawatu.
He will be presented with the award by New Zealand Rugby League at Arena Manawatu tomorrow.
Rata, 77, was among those that started Manawatu Rugby League in 1957 when the club competition first started.
Before that they played Sunday rugby against freezing works from Feilding, Waitara and Wairarapa.
There were six league clubs - Celtic, Kia Ora, Takaro, Kiwi, Feilding and Marton, where Feilding beat Takaro to win the first championship. Celtic was a Longburn freezing works team, but was formed because the player demand was too much for Palmerston North's Kia Ora.
The league ground in Palmerston North was Coronation Park and they used the Masonic Hotel as an aftermatch venue. Takaro was the strongest in those days, but the clash between Celtic and Kia Ora was always the big one, Rata said.
Teams came and went and in the 1960s things struggled, but they made a revival in 1974 where Celtic and Kia Ora combined to form the Kia Ora club of today and other clubs started popping up.
"It's a lot stronger now because of the juniors," Rata said. "We never had juniors in those days when it started."
The new strip was a combination of Celtic's gold and emerald green with the black and white of Kia Ora.
Rata was the first coach of the new Kia Ora club when he was in his 40s and was the first chairman.
"No-one would take it on over the years."
He was in the job until 2004 when his son George took over. But George was killed in a car crash earlier this year, and now Ellie Anderson has taken the reins.
Rata arrived in Manawatu as a 14-year-old from Wanganui.
Born at Ratana Pa, he was at school at Wanganui Tech, but left to attend Longburn School, where he was dux and after that worked at the Longburn freezing works until it closed in 1986.
He played for Celtic as a loose forward from 1957 to 1974 and played rep league for Manawatu, where he played with fellow Manawatu stalwarts Mike Butler and Augie Rewi.
"I wasn't much of a scorer," Rata said. "My forte was tackling. That's the hardest part of it."
One of Rata's fondest memories is when Kia Ora went to play Christchurch club Hornby in the Lion Red competition, the top team from each region.
"Foxton was the strongest team and they played Hornby. Three hundred people went down and watched, including myself, and they got beaten.
"Five years after that in 1990, Kia Ora went down with 32 supporters and we beat them."
Kia Ora had winger Dick Uluave, who also played for Feilding, selected for the Kiwis in 1979 where he played two tests and went on to play for Tonga during the 1980s.
Uluave represented Manawatu and played for New Zealand Maori.
Luke Aranga was Kia Ora's first Junior Kiwi in 1988.
- Manawatu Standard
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