League still a massive part of Mark Horo's life

NEW ROLE: Mark Horo in the action as trainer for the Junior Kiwis last year.
NEW ROLE: Mark Horo in the action as trainer for the Junior Kiwis last year.

Oh how things change.

Mark Horo would never have been seen dead in Manly colours a few years back, such is the rivalry between Manly and his former club Parramatta.

Yet the maroon polo is now a key part of the former Hamilton man's wardrobe. And for good reason. Horo's son Justin, 27, is making his way with the Sea Eagles in the NRL.

FINAL SEASON: Mark Horo in action for the Warriors in 1997, prior to calling an end to his playing career.
FINAL SEASON: Mark Horo in action for the Warriors in 1997, prior to calling an end to his playing career.

It's an amazing statistic that Horo Jr debuted for the Eels in 2010, 20 years to the day and against the same club (Western Suburbs Magpies and now Wests Tigers) that his father did.

After his third season at Parra, Justin was told he was not in the club's future plans, then weighed up some offers, with Manly the best option, much to his old man's original horror.

"He said 'Dad, you don't like Manly ay'. And I said 'No'. He said 'What are you going to do?' I said 'Well I don't like Manly, but I like you. I might be a Manly supporter now'."

Horo, 51, said watching his son play at that level made him "chuffed". There is now double reason to support the Brookvale-based club, with another son - Jayden, 19, in the under-20's setup.

Horo's other son, Jordan, 21, has also played some local footy, though touch is his main go, playing in this month's national championships in Australia.

"It didn't stand a chance," Horo said of the sporting genes skipping through.

Besides his own trio of boys, Horo has been an instrumental figure for several young players coming through the grades.

Having "fell in love" with coaching after former Kiwis team-mate Sam Stewart asked him to manage a team of ex-pat Kiwis Stewart was coaching, Horo moved back to Australia in 2001 to start coaching at under-17s development level in Parramatta.

Two years on he was asked by an Eels club official about a house parenting gig, where he and wife Millie would take several future stars under their wing.

"At the time I remember him getting a handshake for two years, so that we weren't inconvenienced. So we moved out of our house into a place in Parramatta, and that two turned into 12," Horo said.

That continued to his days at Penrith, where Horo is now, moving there in 2011, after being lured by Panthers general manager Phil Gould - one of the sport's biggest names.

"He posed the question with me to come over and help prepare the welfare programme which is the house parenting, and become one of the coaching staff," said Horo, who was involved with the under-18s and the under-20s side which last year beat the Warriors in the grand final.

"You just know that he's smart," Horo said of Gould. "He's got a football brain. And it's pretty evident now what they're doing three years later. If anyone was going to get it right he would."

Horo also spent nine years as head coach of the rugby league programme at Hill Sports High School.

After last year coaching five different teams, he is putting the coaching to one side, as he and Millie put their energy into a rugby league development programme for Maori kids.

It was initiated by the New South Wales Rugby League five years ago to develop players who haven't played rep football, with a Harmony Cup competition established between several countries in the Pacific.

Horo and Millie take care of the NSW Maori under-16s and raise money to give them jerseys and training gear, while Horo also brings in and helps develop a coach.

While also working as NSW account manager at A1 Industries - the same company brother Shane (also a former Kiwi) is at - Horo is about to start some volunteer work with the New Zealand Rugby League around talent identification to see what players are available for the Kiwis.

Horo, like many, is frustrated with the lack of success against Australia, particularly with the large number of New Zealanders now in the NRL.

"The world champion-status we had in 2008 was well-deserved. But I don't think the record's good enough," he said.

"If you're going to play Australia 10 times, I don't think we're ever going to beat them eight times, but I think we should beat them four times. We should be better than what we are, and we need to find out what we need to do. And I'm sure there's people that get paid a lot more money than me that will figure that out one day."

Horo enjoyed success in one game of five against the Kangaroos, and that was the second match of his 16-test career, a week after getting knocked out in his 1987 debut against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, where the visitors won 36-22.

"I still remember falling on the ground, I hit the back of my head," said Horo, who played the rest of the game.

"The trainer was pulling me back onside. They're telling you to get up. You've got to get back in the game, because once you're off, you're off."

Horo noted that things are far better nowadays with the knowledge about concussion.

"I wouldn't want to see what we had to do. But in saying that, we didn't know in those days. We just knew that being replaced was going to leave your team-mates short, and you had to get up, you had to try and shake it off.

"The injuries that we probably played with in those days, you can't now. But it's good because these kids get longer careers. It's a real short time to make a fair bit of money out of a thing that you do love.

"It's a better game. You don't get punched in the face and then the referees tell you to square up yourself."

The debut and the test at Brisbane's Lang Park against the Aussie halves combination of Wally Lewis and Peter Sterling was "an amazing time" in Horo's life.

"I think it was about seven minutes into the game, and I felt like I'd played a game," he said. "I remember being behind the tryline, they'd scored Australia, and I said 'I can't breathe'. It was basically a bit of panic. I was probably one of the fittest players, I felt, at the time."

Horo didn't go out celebrating the victory but rather lay for hours on his hotel bed in shock.

"I laid back on the bed in my number ones and I just realised I'd beaten Australia. It was very surreal."

Horo's league days began at Melville High School, where he was an aspiring rugby player, but joined his mates in the 13-man code, as the Melville Old Boys club was established. The club was set up by the mother of Trevor Clark, who, along with Neville Ramsey, Horo rates as the toughest guys he'd played with or against.

"It was hard case too because I still remember my dad wouldn't come and watch us play. He was staunch rugby union," Horo said.

But that didn't deter him, and two years on Horo joined the Hamilton City Tigers because his good friend James Smith was there, as well as Smith's father Tom, who had a number of roles at the club and was like a second dad to Horo.

These were the days of rep games for Hamilton in their orange jerseys, before the amalgamation with Waikato, as well as for Northern Districts, before Horo shifted north.

Brother Shane made the Kiwis in 1985 and signed with the Te Atatu club in Auckland, who he told about his little brother. So, soon after, Shane travelled down in club sponsor John Dobson's BMW, and Dobson was offering Mark $1000 to play at Te Atatu for the year, at a time when playing for money was unheard of.

Horo said Dobson became a life-long friend, and the time at the club was wonderful, winning competitions, both Auckland-based and national, and that playing for a better side helped further his career.

But the move was a tough decision, with Horo working at a glass company in Hamilton at the time and with Justin on the way.

"To move at that time was huge. To go from Hamilton to Auckland, it felt like going to England," Horo said.

Speaking of England, that was next on the agenda, with Horo heading to Salford for the season of 1988-89, after being seen at the 1988 World Cup.

It was good money, but he saw a window of opportunity to test himself in the best competition in the world - the Winfield Cup - so he packed up and left. After speaking to a number of clubs, Horo trialled for the Eels, who went halves with him in paying his transfer fee.

He described Paramatta as a "wonderful" club and "really professional".

"I still remember going to Parramatta and they give you training gear when you walk in. You struggled to get a t-shirt at clubs in New Zealand in those days," said Horo, who suddenly had numerous people in management roles around him.

"I always grew up with a coach that would be the trainer, he'd be your medic, he'd be your manager, you'd borrow 20 bucks off him."

Horo said the experience opened eyes as to where Kiwi players had to be to match what the Australians were doing.

At the end of his fifth season, in 1994, Horo was set to retire, but having come back from a torn Achilles and finishing the season in reserve grade, he figured it wasn't the right note to bow out on.

The Eels let him go, but he was picked up by Wests, who were coached by the legendary Tommy Raudonikis.

"Without being overly critical, it was going from driving around in a Maserati to probably driving around in a Fiat," Horo said of the change.

"They didn't have some of the resources and funds and venues that Parramatta had. But that year, I realised why I started playing rugby league, I remembered the days of being a 17-year-old. I loved the environment, I loved Tommy, he made you want to play rugby league again

"That 22 games I played that year, it resurrected my career."

Horo hadn't played for the Kiwis since 1990, but went to the World Cup in 1995, and played a further two tests a year later, while also joining the Warriors for two seasons.

"Playing for the Warriors was the easiest thing I'd done in eight years," he said. "To me it was not the Auckland Warriors, it was the Warriors, and I felt like we were always representing New Zealand anyway at the time."

Horo's time in the sport looks like never ending, such is the commitment and passion he has brought to it.

"I'm a tragic. I think my wife would've thought after I retired, when I was about 100, I'd give it away," he said.

"Rugby league's just done everything I could possibly wish for for us as a family.

"That's the best thing I can say about the game."

Waikato Times