Disabled children inspire young player
Api Pewhairangi has two reasons for wanting to continue his rugby league education at the Newcastle Knights: exposure to the wisdom of master coach Wayne Bennett and maintaining his ties with the students at a school for the disabled.
The Palmerston North 20-year-old's latest deal at the rebuilding NRL club expires in November but the captain of their Toyota Cup team is hopeful of negotiating another extension within the next month.
Since he arrived in Newcastle at the end of 2009, Pewhairangi has experienced the frustrations of any budding professional footballer.
He was injured soon after he arrived and then discovered the local club team he was linked with were tardy trainers and struggled for numbers on game day.
Fortunately, Pewhairangi managed to play a handful of games in the SG Ball competition in 2010 and then convinced the Knights coaching staff to give him a chance in reserve grade. From there he was fast-tracked into the under-20s.
His form at the back end of 2010 warranted game time in first-grade trials in last year's pre-season - including a run against the New Zealand Warriors in Greymouth - and suddenly he found himself training with the top 25 alongside Kurt Gidley, Akuila Uate and Jarred Mullen, the playmaker he aspired to be.
However, wrist, calf and hamstring injuries then stalled his progress and this year he wasn't required to train with the elite squad.
“My first year, I shot up straight away. I had a pre-season, I had heaps of training sessions with first grade but because of injury last year, I didn't really get heaps of opportunities,” he said.
He played only 10 games in 2011 and while his former halves partner in the under-20s, Tyrone Roberts, is now a member of Bennett's starting lineup, Pewhairangi has been treading water on the northern NSW coast and playing in the centres.
“In this pre-season I was sort of expecting to get a run with the top side like last year, so that was sort of disappointing. I've just had to keep working hard.”
Pewhairangi has not yet spoken to Bennett since the legendary mentor arrived from St George-Illawarra. But his assistant - and predecessor - Rick Stone, has provided positive vibes regarding staying on.
“I've heard a few things from the club that they want to keep me here. I talked to Stoney recently; he gave me some good feedback,” he said.
Given Bennett moulded Allan Langer and Darren Lockyer during his 20 years at the Brisbane Broncos, it is obvious Pewhairangi wants to stay put. “This is the club to be at for the next few years,” he said.
“It's going up from here.”
Meanwhile, Pewhairangi's down time away from football is also an uplifting experience.
He visited the Newcastle Middle School for physically and intellectually disabled children last year with a couple of team-mates and when a part-time job became available, he put his hand up.
“I've been going in three days a week. I'm just like a helping hand for the teacher. I do stuff like reading and taking them for bike rides so the teacher can have one-on-one time with other students.
The first fortnight “was very confronting”, he conceded.
“Now they're just normal people for me. I just connected with them, the boys mainly. I love it.”
There is no time for PlayStation back in his homestay with the Taylors either - he is striving for a BA in Maori Studies through Massey University, a qualification that continues an affinity with his native tongue.
“It's something that connects me back to home,” said Pewhairangi, who was educated at the Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Mana Tamariki Maori immersion school in Palmerston North.
“It's Maori language, political and health stuff."
While studying at one of league's school of hard knocks, Pewhairangi might never be top of the class at a club that produced halves like Andrew Johns, but he was confident he could make it in the NRL, given the opportunity.
“I was playing NSW Cup at 18, those boys are the same size (as first grade),” he said, lamenting a missed opportunity in 2012.
“Last year's injuries have put me back big time.” Fairfax NZ