Playing for Sean

Kirstie Stanway
Written by
Kirstie Stanway

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi of the All Blacks performs the haka during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina at Trafalgar Park on September 8, 2018 in Nelson, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Bonds in rugby run deep and for Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi there’s one connection that far outweighs the rest.

He was great friends with Chiefs wing and Māori All Black Sean Wainui who died in a car crash late last year.

“He was one of the first people I told, as soon as I signed the contract. I said ‘bro I’m going down to the Crusaders’.''  

He gets emotional speaking about it because the pair shared everything.  They started their rugby journey together in Taranaki and were immediately put to work off the field, building panga fences. They teamed up in the New Zealand under-20’s side, Taranaki, reconnected at the Chiefs and last year domestically with Bay of Plenty. “The emotions are still very raw with him being gone and for me I just want to make sure it has given me another purpose.”

Heading into his seventh season of Super Rugby, the 26-year-old halfback is excited to try something different. He’s moving away from homebase in Hamilton, trading in the Chiefs jersey where he made a name for himself, for a shot at the Crusaders. He’s signed a one-year deal with the Christchurch-based franchise but by his own admission, Scott Robertson handed him a lifeline.  

“To be honest, they were the only team left with another halfback position.” The Chiefs had signed up-and-comer Cortez-Lee Ratima leaving the off-contract Tahuriorangi looking for a new team, so he got in contact with his former New Zealand age-grade coach and quickly put pen to paper.

Triple T, as he’s affectionately known, won the 2015 Junior World Championship in Italy under Robertson. “Our team back then - it was hard to try and get on the bench let alone start.” Everyone was jostling for positions in the star studded side that included Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Mitch Hunt, Anton Lienert-Brown, Akira Ioane and, of course, Wainui. Robertson had an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, but Te Toiroa was quick to point out who the real difference maker was. “It was a great team, but led by a great coach.”  

Tahuriorangi is a product of the Rotorua Boys High School factory. On Saturday’s he would play rugby, then it was off to church on Sunday before heading to the local league ground where he would turn out for Pikiao. He was marked for big things and in his 7th form year came the big news, he was going to be a father.  “We had him in my last year at school, 2013, and now Thomas is eight years old. Yeah it was challenging having a kid at school.”  

But the humble, hard working Māori boy from Rotorua took it in his stride. It wasn’t easy but he and his wife Keely made it work. “I’m just glad that my beautiful wife stuck it out with me and made the trip with me down to Taranaki on ‘hopes and dreams’, and obviously the rest is history.”

Te Toiroa, Keely and Thomas made the move to Taranaki before Tahuriorangi signed his first Super Rugby contract with the Hurricanes. When an opportunity came up to move home and join the Chiefs in 2018 they jumped at the opportunity. Within a season Te Toiroa went from just another rugby player to Super Rugby stardom. The young father made the most of an injury to Brad Weber and Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s departure to France which opened up a spot in the All Blacks.  

“It was so unreal, it happened really quick, obviously I was still young and to even get named in the squad initially was just a big dream.” The dream became reality in May when he debuted against Argentina in Nelson. “You know as a kid you dream of becoming an All Black, and to be able to do that in front of my family was very special, a memory I will never forget and a moment that I’ll cherish forever.”

The highs didn’t last long though as his meteoric rise came to an abrupt halt when he tore a ligament in his knee. “I did my MCL and that put me out for ages and when you’re trying to make things happen, you try and come back a lot earlier and then end up with ongoing issues.”  

The next two seasons were spent struggling with injuries and then Covid hit. He failed to make the All Blacks squad and that took its toll. “I feel like once you get injured or miss selections, the mental side of it is very tough and when you don’t have the right support it feels like you’re alone.”  

His upbringing helped get him through the tough times and he asked for help to try and navigate through the rocky period.  “These last couple of years, I ain’t going to lie, they were really rough with things I couldn’t really control my frustration.” His whanau rallied around him and reconnected him with the four pillars of Maori health - taha whaanau (family), taha tinana (physical), taha hinengaro (mental), and taha wairua (spiritual). He’s learnt a lot and wants to encourage others who may be struggling to learn about their emotions and how to be vulnerable.

Now that he’s fit and healthy there’s a new challenge. “You always want to be back in that black jersey but I hope to go down to the Crusaders, put my best foot forward.” It’s Te Toiroa’s chance for a do-over but there’s another side to it. “I just want to make sure I enjoy it by working hard and making sure I leave no stone unturned.” He’s seen first hand what the alternative to rugby is and it’s not as glamorous. “My father-in-law always told me if things don’t work out you can always come and work in the bush and that really drove me to make sure I didn’t end up there.” Growing up, Tahuriorangi watched his parents Pae and June work hard to put food on the table. “I’m very fortunate and grateful to be able to do what I do and I always remind myself, I see my parents all the time, they’re the ones that have the most pressure on them to work 9-5 on the job, that’s real yakka, hard labour and what I’m doing right now is a real privilege and I’m really grateful.”

Now he gets a second chance at his rugby dream at the place it all started for his great mate, Sean. “It’s quite ironic how this year has been. To be able to go down there where it all started for him, I just want to make him proud and put my best foot forward.”

Kirstie Stanway
Written by
Kirstie Stanway

Story teller, Journalist, Presenter, Producer, Voiceover, MC

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