A massive search for missing New Zealand Warriors rugby league player Sonny Fai has been called off until tomorrow but his family say they are not giving up hope he will be found alive.
Fai, 20, had been swimming with a number of family members when they became caught in a rip on Bethell's Beach on Auckland's rugged west coast.
It is understood Fai's younger brother became separated from the group and Fai had swum out to help him. It was then that he was struck by a wave and swept away.
Fai's sister La Lelei said family members had searched the beach until they were told to go home at 2am this morning. They returned 3 hours later to continue looking.
The entire 40 strong Warriors squad, including players and management, had also been scouring the coast line looking for Fai since about 5am.
Team manager Don Mann said the players were devastated when they heard Fai was missing.
The team had been scheduled for their first training session of the season this morning.
"It's a devastating and shocking way to start our training", he said.
It is understood the team has paid for a helicopter to conduct an aerial search of the vast coastline.
A police boat had also been searching this morning.
Fai's agent Frank Endacott said he understood the 20-year-old had just completed a training run and had gone to cool off in the surf.
''What we’ve heard is the four of them were going for a training run down the beach", he said.
"... they went into the surf for a dip, to cool off ... that’s where they got into trouble.
''It sounds like they've got caught in some sort of current, or rip.
''It's not looking good for Sonny Fai, not looking good at all.''
Surf Life Saving NZ's Dean Storey said patrols had concluded for the day when a member of the public raised the alarm with an off-duty lifeguard and informed him that four men had been swept out to sea.
"The lifeguard responded and was back on the scene with an IRB within 10 minutes of being notified,'' Storey said.
"Lifeguards conducted a search in rough conditions with a 1.5m swell but were unable to locate the man."
In an eerie coincidence, it is almost 10 years since the death of another promising young New Zealand Warriors star.
In January 1999 the New Zealand Rugby league community was stunned to learn of the death of the talented Tai Savea.
Savea drowned in the Port Waikato River while on a fishing trip.
He, like Fai, was just 20-years-old.
Savea, who also played for the junior Kiwis, had just signed with NRL club Balmain (now West Tigers) at the time of his death.
Fai made 15 appearances for the Warriors after making his debut against Paramatta last year.
A utility who signed with the Warriors as a 14-year-old, Fai has long been touted as a player of immense potential.
The 1.92m tall, 109kg Fai is contracted to the Warriors until the end of the 2010 season.
He extended his contract with the Auckland-based club last year despite reported interest from up to seven other NRL clubs.
He has represented the Junior Kiwi's since 2004, as well as representing the New Zealand Under-18's and Under-16's.
He has a fan club on social-networking site Bebo with almost 200 members.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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