A Bad Week For Kiwi League

New Zealand rugby league is as much about famous family names as any sport in the country.

Bailey, Sorensen, Ackland, Orchard, Tamati, Ropati, Tuimavave and Mann are just some names instantly and, more often than not, gloriously associated with league.

Likewise Rainey and Ah Kuoi, only they're both in profile now because of sad losses rather than joyous celebrations.

In quick succession family and friends - not to mention the game itself - have been mourning the deaths of George Rainey and Afi Ah Kuoi.

Rainey was the ultimate administrator, one of the very best his sport has ever seen and ranking among the elite in any New Zealand sport.

League in this country has never been blessed with an abundance of quality leaders but Rainey's style and standing gave the game genuine clout.

He was often viewed - incorrectly - as an autocrat. Certainly he could be assertive but his desire was always to have everyone singing the same song, even if his unified approach was sometimes achieved through the gentle art of Rainey-styled persuasion.

His was always a voice of reason, especially when faced with a crisis. While others were floundering if not foundering, Rainey could swiftly bring everyone back on course with his powers of logic.

Many people are described as being ahead of their time. George Rainey typified that mould.

Much has been made in various tributes about his foresight in driving Carlaw Park's purchase. That may stand as his crowning achievement.

But there were so many other contributions as well, not least his conviction and effort in establishing night football at Carlaw Park in the mid 1970s (before anyone else was thinking about it).

That innovation made the 1975 season one to remember.

At club level Maritime became Auckland's night-time stars, generating crowd-pulling power through the introduction of a spate of rugby union signings - All Black prop Graham Whiting, Tony Gordon and Wayne Marsh from the King Country - in a team built around Roger Bailey's genius.

And on the representative scene, night football struck a chord in a year framed around the 1975 World Cup. On one memorable night Auckland - then coached by the late Bill Sorensen - overwhelmed the touring Welsh team, inspired by the powerful Albie Hansen who was far more imposing back then than Jonah Lomu has ever been for the All Blacks.

So, mark down night football as another Rainey masterstroke.

But what shone through was his wisdom in all matters related to the game. After Sunday afternoon football - either club games or representative fixtures - Rainey could usually be found well after most people had left in a group with Bill Sorensen, Ron Ackland and two Auckland Star reporters. It was an education, discussions ranging across all manner of rugby league issues - and others - with an abiding memory being Rainey's chuckle and a stream of well-chosen one-liners and interjections (and there was also his idiosyncratic way of doing up his tie - no knot, just rolled through and hanging loose).

He made his opinions well, and he ensured they were heard. Such was the case during the times the beast that is now the Warriors was being formed.

There was a sense back in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s that Rainey wasn't so supportive of having a New Zealand team in the Australian competition. At least that's probably how the Mt Albert Rugby League Club felt when it made a bid to join what was then the New South Wales Rugby League's Winfield Cup.

At the time Rainey was the New Zealand Rugby League's president and questioned the Mt Albert campaign. In A New Breed Rising, the story of the Warriors' creation, Rainey insisted he wasn't averse to the concept at all.

"Personally I was probably as keen as anybody else but there were really so many ramifications that, in my view, it was wise to make people walk slowly," he said. "I also believed it was important to advance the cause based on logic, rather than enthusiasm. While enthusiasm's an important ingredient, it's not the only one."

That perhaps perfectly captured Rainey's credo - always sound, sensible and yet passionate about the sport.

When he died aged 73 no one could say George Rainey hadn't given an awful lot to his sport.

Afi Ah Kuoi was but 42 when he died last week after a long battle with cancer but he, too, lived for league and contributed far beyond reasonable expectations.

The Ah Kuoi family is indelibly linked with the game and Auckland's illustrious Richmond Rovers Rugby League Club. That's where Afi's older brother Fred learned his craft before becoming a Kiwi great and going on to establish himself as a fulltime professional with North Sydney and then Hull.

At one time, three Ah Kuois all figured strongly in Richmond's premier ranks - Fred, Peter and Afi - while later Andrew and Paul would also feature in the club's colours.

But Afi Ah Kuoi's story would evolve into club administration as well, including a period as club chairman and a deep involvement in all manner of community and sporting pursuits including netball and touch.

To measure his influence and the way he affected people needed only a journey to the New Zealand Herald death notices last Friday, Saturday and again on Monday. On Saturday alone, three full columns of notices were published. It was an educational experience reading them.

His funeral at the PIC Church in Newtown Road, Auckland, on Monday was an incredible event. More than 1000 mourners attended, saying more still about this young man's impact.

He was a joyous spirit and yet his life was laced with dreadful tragedy.

His wife Karen - and mother of their daughter Amy - died several years ago of cancer. Now his relationship with his partner Leonie has ended with his death from cancer as well.

On the day he was buried, Afi Ah Kuoi would have turned 43.

During the funeral service they stopped to sing happy birthday. Dry eyes were hard to find.

Leagueunlimited thanks nzoom.com for the generous use of Richards article.