Throwback Thursday: Hitro Okesene - the Warriors' first cult hero

Few sights lifted the then-Ericsson Stadium crowd to their feet like a trademark charge from foundation Warriors front-rower Hitro Okesene.

Resembling a Samoan Hercules with his long black locks flailing over his sand-dune traps, 'Nitro' treated opposition defensive lines like they owed him money, earning instant cult-hero status with the club faithful.

His wind-up-and-go, borderline-reckless approach helped launch the Warriors' reputation for large, fearless, no-holds-barred forward packs who relished physical confrontation... thrived on it, even.

Legend has it, Okesene inspired the classic Kiwi colloquialism 'run it straight'. Probably.

"With the Warriors' brand name, I think the fans really wanted us to live up to that and be Warriors," Okesene tells Newshub.  

"I think running hard and giving it all of your effort, the fan's really appreciated that and they really loved it.

"I just enjoyed running and tackling."

Not bad for someone who had never played prop through his entire career until that point. An injury to English import Andy Platt opened the door for Okesene and the big man - as he's inclined to do - charged right though.

"I'd played hooker all my life," he reveals. "The only time I'd ever played prop was when I went to the Warriors.

"I was playing OK during the warm up games and training hard. When Andy went down, [coach] John [Monie] asked me if I could play prop.

"I thought, 'yeah I'll give it a go', because I liked to mix it up with the lads and that - play hard, play fair. 

"I was lucky enough to play OK during the trials and then get a start."

The decision proved another 'sliding doors' moment for the South Auckland upstart, whom Monie had discovered by chance only months earlier.

The Warriors' inaugural head coach had attended a local club game to scout highly touted forward Tony Tatupu, who played for Mt Albert Lions against Okesene's Manukau Magpies.

Okesene during Warriors training with Aussie import Grge Alexander.
Okesene during Warriors training with Aussie import Grge Alexander. Photo credit: Photosport

"I had a good game and then got word that they wanted to sign me, as well as Tony, so I was very lucky."

Almost three decades later, Okesene, 49, still looks like it could still do damage on the field, perhaps just in shorter stints off the bench.

The quintessential family man now resides in Carlisle - England's northernmost city before the Scottish border - completing a full cycle of sorts. 

In this very city, an 18-year-old Okesene, fresh out of Mangere College, got his first taste of professional league back in 1989 and this is where he met wife-to-be Donna, with whom he shares daughters Giovanna and Shakayla, and son Lerocco. 

Living here was a natural progression, after Okesene completed a five-year career in Europe, playing for Hull, Featherstone Rovers, Tres Catalans in France (now Catalans Dragons) and finally Workington Town.

He played his final season with the local West Cumbrian club, where the same reputation he had at the Warriors still precedes him down at the local pub. You could say he's kind of a big deal.

"I know a lot of people," Okesene says, with a humble grin. "They're a really good bunch of people - working class and they love their league, and their rugby as well."

But before his days in England came the most memorable period of his career, beginning with that magical inaugural season with the Auckland Warriors.

The fervour and hype surrounding that debut campaign was arguably unrivalled in NZ sport, even to this day. 

The league fraternity across the country - still one of the most notoriously parochial, diehard bunch of Kiwi sports supporters - abandoned (for the most part) their Aussie faves and jumped on board with the locals.

Okesene packs down alongside Duanne Mann and Joe Vagana.
Okesene packs down alongside Duanne Mann and Joe Vagana. Photo credit: Photosport

Okesene still shakes his head when he recalls the "amazing" spectacle around that home debut against Brisbane Broncos, which has become one of the most lauded losses in Kiwi sports history.

"It didn't really hit me until I actually went into the gym across the road to get changed. 

"We had our team talk and our own moment to take everything in, and we could hear the noise coming from the stadium. It wasn't until we got to the tunnel it was like, 'wow, we're here and this is a moment'.

"When we came out of the tunnel to the flames and the Māori group doing the haka, the noise was unbelievable. 

"We got out onto the field, and I took a moment to look around and thought, 'this is really something'. 

"We couldn't actually hear the guy 10m away, the noise was that loud, even during the game. The crowd was so into it and so pumped."

Mercurial Broncos half Alan Langer spoiled the Warriors' party, with some late moments of brilliance, but Okesene learned plenty about his own abilities that night and during rounds to follow, as he tested himself against players he'd once idolised.

The step up from Moyle Park to the NRL's breakneck pace obviously took some adjustment, but the Warriors' high-paced pre-season training had them well primed. 

Throwback Thursday: Hitro Okesene - the Warriors' first cult hero
Photo credit: Photosport

"Playing against guys like Langer and Cliffy Lyons, you're just in awe. There were just so many talented players, but then you play against them and you think, 'that wasn't too bad'.

"Playing with and against Johnny Lomax, he was a tough man. Also Paul Harrigan at Newcastle, tough as teak... the Raiders' Glen Lazarus. There's so many great names, and big players that you'd love coming up against and seeing how well you could go."

Okesene's previous role as a hooker - where he was often tasked with kicking for goal and in general play - also meant he had ball-playing abilities that were missing from most of his rivals in that era of the game.

"When you're a hooker, you have a lot more agility than a prop. Bulking up sort of lost a little bit of that agility, but still, being a ball-playing hooker, I could easily offload and change my game that way."

With the benefit of hindsight, Okesene - who was already pushing 100kg as a hooker - admits he may have spent a bit too much time in the club's weightroom.

"I was told by our trainer to put the extra weight on when I was playing hooker, but at my hooking weight, I thought I was actually strong enough to compete with those props, as a hooker playing prop.

"Obviously, he didn't see it that way. If I didn't bulk up... I think I still could've mixed it with the big lads, and been more agile and a lot fitter."

Ultimately, the Warriors' first-up campaign came to a heart-wrenching conclusion, when they were docked two competition points for an extra substitution during a 46-12 rout of Western Suburbs Magpies in their second home game.

Of course, they finished round-robin play two points shy of a playoff berth. 

Okesene receiving some sage post-game advice from Temuera Morrison, fresh out of 'Once Were Warriors'.
Okesene receiving some sage post-game advice from Temuera Morrison, fresh out of 'Once Were Warriors'. Photo credit: Photosport

As deflating as that was, Okesene's play had demanded the attention of the national selectors, earning a spot on the New Zealand Kiwis squad for the 1995 World Cup in England.

The high of his first (and only) test try to beat Tonga at the death was quickly followed by a devastating one-point loss in the semi-final against Australia, where fullback extraordinaire Matthew Ridge almost singlehandedly willed the Kiwis to victory. 

The sideline conversion that grazed the upright with the scores locked and time expired... you know the one.

"That was heartbreaking," Okesene recalls. "We came from behind twice to go into extra time. 

"Ridgey kicked a drop goal off his left foot and I thought it went over… it must've just missed by millimetres."

The Super League era and injury limited Okesene's impact to just a handful of games in the 1996 NRL season, before the emergence of young front-row talent saw Okesene deemed surplus to requirements and his Warriors career came to an abrupt end.

"Contracts were coming up for expiry and we had a lot of young lads coming through, like Joe Vagana and Brady Malam, all going into prop. I was told it was time for me to move on.

"That's how I ended up in Hull. I didn't have a pre-season at all. 

"I think I left about March or April for England, straight into it. Within three days I was playing, jetlagged and all.

"It was hard, but sometimes you've got to just get on with things."

Okesene has nothing but positive memories from those days in the iconic DB Bitter jerseys, both on and off the field.

"I think we used to get out and celebrate a bit too much," he says, with a hearty laugh. "We all liked to party and enjoy ourselves.

"But then you have to knuckle down and do the hard work, get back to eating and training right, and looking after your body.

"Just getting to know these guys, making friends. You're with them everyday, train twice a day, you go out and have meals - it's like a family."

Okesene with wife Donna, daughters Giovanna, Shakayla, and son Lerocco.
Okesene with wife Donna, daughters Giovanna, Shakayla, and son Lerocco. Photo credit: Supplied

Okesene still keenly follows the Warriors' progress. Although time zones make watching live games a challenge, he hasn't given up hope of a maiden NRL title heading back to Auckland.

"A lot of the games are about 3am, so sometimes I don't get up to watch them, but I'm always supporting them. I'm always keeping the faith, 

"One day, it'll happen - it's just when, but what can you do, just keep supporting and wishing them all the best. They'll do it one day."

And he has a heap of confidence in coach and former teammate Stephen Kearney's ability to turn things around. Kearney was a player he modelled his own leadership style on.

"He has always been a good leader - trained hard, watched his diet. Steve was the ultimate professional... he's the one person I looked up to and still do.

"I just wanted to play the game and be a role model for the younger lads to better themselves. I was always the one on the field who's breaking up the fights.

"Your attitude rubs off, even off the pitch... your attitude, how you do things. It's not hard to be polite."

When his playing days were up, Okesene transitioned into an engineering career, then construction. He's recently moved back into a role with a mechanical engineering firm, specialising in the food and beverage industry.

While Okesene's style was crowd-pleasing, it may also have caused the chronic knee issues that forced him to hang up his boots at just 32.

Given the way he threw every ounce of his being into on-field contact, his body continues to pay the price.

"I still wake up now and feel like I've had a game the day before - still aching.

"I've had a hip replacement and I think I need a couple of knees as well."

But behind his quiet charm and a clear sense of contentment, Okesene has no regrets. 

"The body has taken a battering but, hey, it's part of the game and I wouldn't change anything.

"Love the game, played the game hard and fair... no regrets."