Cult hero Hitro Okesene's Cumbrian sunset

Last updated 05:07 31/08/2014
Hitro Okesene
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

ALL HEART: Nearly two decades after playing for the Warriors, Hitro Okesene remains a cult hero beloved by the franchise's fans. Ben Stanley tracks him down and finds out what he's doing now.

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Hitro Okesene played only three seasons for the Warriors in the mid-90s yet remains one of the club's most beloved players. But what happened to him? BEN STANLEY went to Cumbria, England to find out.

Mid-afternoon and the Maryport Navy Club is packed.

Thirsty punters stand elbow-to-elbow, necking cheap cans of Carlsberg at an impressive pace and talking loud in gritty, blue-collar Cumbrian accents.

A guitarist on a small stage at the end of the bar sweeps his hand across his instrument, and his band - TJ and the Suitcase - launch into their next number: a cover of the age-old blues standard Who Do You Love. I walked through 47 miles of barbed wire / I got a cobra snake for a necktie.

There's a good feeling in the air; that sort of loose, warm feeling that only good music, good company and a few downed beers will provide.

About five metres back into the crowd, there's a big Kiwi-Samoan bloke with a mullet, nodding his head to the music.

He takes a long sip from his can, and smiles; this is his sort of scene.

It's the last day of the famed Maryport Blues Festival - the United Kingdom's biggest blues celebration.

The festival, which runs for an entire weekend in the town's bars in late July, has a reputation for getting pretty feral in ‘Scaryport' - at the moment, it's a pretty mellow vibe.

A guy wearing a bright red Workington Town rugby league jersey approaches the Kiwi-Samoan. He has quite obviously started on the wets very early in the day but his admiration for the man with the mullet is clear.

The leaguie holds up his festival programme for him to sign, and asks for a photo.

Hitro Okesene - rugby league cult hero - smiles again, and wraps one of his big arms around the fan's shoulders as his friend holds up a camera.

"You's a real legend you are, Hitro," he yells, as TJ and the Suitcase rip into the chorus. Who do you love? Who do you love?

"You's the man," the fan says, patting Okesene on the chest. "Best player I saw for Town. Hard man. Great player."

ASK ANY New Zealand league fan about Hitro Okesene, and a particular image will almost certainly come to mind.

The man with his head down, long scraggly mullet flying, and tree trunk-sized legs pumping fearlessly into the next tackle.

For the first three years of the Warriors' existence, from 1995-97, the south Auckland front rower was the people's face of the club.

Sure, you had the big-name Australian signings Greg Alexander and Phil Blake, as well as Wigan and Kiwis legend Dean Bell - but it was Okesene, a starting prop in the Warriors famous first game against the Broncos in March 1995 that the fans really fell for.

"He really was a cult hero at the club, the way his hair flew about and with his style of play," legendary Warriors halfback Stacey Jones says. "He was full on but off the field he was a real nice guy."

More than any other player, Okesene, a five-test Kiwi who played in the ‘95 World Cup, was the guy that perhaps best personified the Warriors' early years.

Full of the talent and heart required to compete in the first-grade but without the fully formed professional mentality to hold things together completely at the top level.

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After the tumultuous 1997 Super League season- which Okesene played just one game in - he left New Zealand.

He, and his young family, were bound for Cumbria, England, where he would became a cult hero for Workington Town, the "people's club" in a staunch working-class region.

Cumbria is a place where the people love him just as the Warriors faithful do.

"To be honest, I think it was because I was a local in with all the big names," Okesene, now 43, says, laughing, when asked by the Sunday Star-Times about his cult following at Mt Smart nearly two decades ago.

It is the day before he heads to the blues festival, and Okesene is at his brother-in-law's birthday barbecue in Carlisle.

He is surrounded by family - wife Donna and kids Shakayla, Giavanna and Rocco - as well as his extended and Donna's extended family.

Okesene's famed mullet still covers his head but a few kilos have been added to the puku since those glory days.

"I only lived down the road from Penrose then. I was staying in my parents garage in Mangere when that first game [against the Broncos] was played.

"To tell you the truth, I was looking at these guys that I'd watched on TV, and it was just cool to get to know them."

Okesene's link with Cumbria stretches back to before the Warriors even existed, thanks to Cameron Bell - father of Dean and legendary Auckland league coach in his own right.

Okesene, then 18, wanted the opportunity to play English league for a season and asked Bell, his coach at Manukau, if he could make something happen.

Bell had strong links to Carlisle - he would coach the team for four seasons from 1990 - and secured the teenager a spot in the town's league team quickly.

While juggling commitments to Manukau in the Kiwi winter, Okesene would play three UK seasons for the club, during which time he'd met Donna.

The Warriors opportunity - he would play 23 times for the club - would come after being scouted playing for Manukau in ‘94 - but differences in opinion with the coaching staff meant a return to England would happen, eventually.

He'd do spells at Hull, Featherstone, in a Catalans XIII in France alongside his brother Paul - who died in Spain in 2012 - before playing for Workington for four seasons.

At "Town", as the locals know it, Okesene played the hard-charging, up-the-guts style of footy he did at Mt Smart - and the fans responded in an identical way.

OKESENE AND his family live in the village of Oughterside, located a half-hour's drive south of Carlisle on the road down to Maryport.

His house - his No. 10 jersey from that very first Warriors game is in the attic - is far from a mansion but most certainly a home.

A small Heartbeat-style village of no more than 600 people, Oughterside overlooks the foothills of the famed Lake District.

There's a pub - "my local," Okesene says - called the Miner's Arms but any shopping is done in Aspatria, a few clicks up the road towards Carlisle.

During the week, Okesene works for Thomas Armstrong Construction; Cumbria's biggest construction firm.

The work differs. Often he'll be driving the dump truck but he'll do time on the road roller, and various other general worksite jobs as well.

Okesene enjoys his work, and the cameradierie of the worksite. Few know his past, he admits, and what he achieved on the footy field though.

"The young guys don't want to hear that old school stuff - they don't believe us," he says.

"I say ‘I used to play with those guys' - and the young guys are like ‘whatever'.

"There's a lot of young lads that play league, and they don't know. There are old guys there - around Maryport is a hot spot for rugby league clubs and talent - they know what happened.

"That eased me into the company. I'm normally the quiet one, though. I'll just do my job and keep my head down."

It is fair to ask whether Okesene reached the absolute ceiling he could as a player.

Yep, he was a foundation Warrior, played in a World Cup for the Kiwis and had a decent semi-amateur career in the UK - but one feels that his legacy on the paddock could have been much greater.

Jones believes Okesene could have achieved more at the Warriors, but feels his friend was never used in the position he was best suited to.

Had Okesene donned the No. 9 Warriors jumper from the word go, instead of the No. 10, things might have been different.

"He could have stayed at the Warriors longer than he did," Jones says.

"He ended up going hard on the weights - we all did that year [1995] - and was turned into a prop. I think his best value was as a hooker or even a second rower when he was trimmed down a bit.

"He was outstanding in 1994 - the best hooker on the domestic scene. The way he was playing then he could have put a lot of pressure on for hooker's job with the Warriors."

His old skipper Bell believes Okesene's career hit the mark, just right.

"With Hitro, it was 100 per cent or nothing," he says. "That's the way he was with everything he did.

"You were never in doubt that he'd play to his very best and that enabled him to reach the heights of playing for the Warriors and also representing the Kiwis.

"He certainly got the best out of himself."

OKESENE IS nodding his head to the beat, again. He is in the kitchen of his Oughterside home and, this time, the Grayson Hugh classic Talk It Over is on the dial.

It is past 11pm, and he just arrived home from the Maryport Blues Festival, a bus ride down the road. It's been a great night, and Okesene's still in good mood.

During the course of the day, at least a dozen fans approached the Kiwi and talked league with him. Countless more friends, co-workers and former teammates were bumped into as well. Okesene has time for them all.

He may not have made the big money or still be hanging with the big names, but what the Kiwi means to the people that watched him play for Carlisle and Workington Town is obvious - and worth something that money can't buy.

Like those days at the Warriors - he is one of them. He played league the way it should be played - and now he's living his life like they are.

Here in Cumbria, Okesene - rugby league cult hero from Mangere to Maryport, hard-working father and husband, and proud Kiwi Samoan with a ready grin - is loved; not just by his family, but by his community.

It doesn't get much better, really; a man with big mullet, still; but an even bigger heart.

"I'm blessed," Okesene says. "Nah, that's corny. I'm thankful, really. Life's all good."

- Sunday Star Times

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