JANUARY 4, 2009
The Warriors’ blistering finish to the previous season and New Zealand’s subsequent World Cup triumph sent hype around the club’s prospects into overdrive as the calendar flipped over into 2009. Prodigal son Stacey Jones was joined in the arrivals column by boom Brisbane backs Denan Kemp and Joel Moon, Queensland Origin forward Jacob Lillyman and late-blooming Hamilton-born prop Jesse Royal.
But on January 4 – the day before the players returned from the Christmas break – tragedy rocked the club to its core.
Burgeoning back-rower/centre Sonny Fai, who had been named in both the Kiwis’ and Samoa’s World Cup train-on squads in 2008, took a spontaneous late-afternoon trip with his siblings and extended family to Te Henga (Bethells Beach).
The 20-year-old Fai put himself through a session running up and down the infamous Bethells sand dunes, already a torturous feature of Warriors pre-season training, before making a fateful decision to cool off in the unforgiving West Coast ocean.
Sonny, his 13-year-old brother Gillesbie and their cousins became caught in a rip. After a frantic struggle, all except Gillesbie managed to make it back to safety. Sonny swam back out to rescue his brother but the pair were sucked further out to sea.
After being kept afloat by Sonny, Gillesbie miraculously emerged 50 metres along the beach. But Sonny never resurfaced. A search and rescue operation failed to detect any sign of him and he was presumed drowned. Sonny died a hero but his body was never found.
The NRL community rallied around the heartbroken, shellshocked Warriors. Tributes and condolences flooded in for the charismatic, incredibly talented, universally popular Fai. As the club grieved, players returned to the beach for weeks afterwards in hope of finding their mate, desperately seeking closure.
Fai scored five tries in 15 NRL appearances in 2008 (on top of five tries in 10 games in the inaugural NYC) to win the Warriors’ Rookie of the Year award.
‘Sonny was a special talent as a footballer and touched everyone at the Warriors. He loved life, loved football and loved to train.’ – Stacey Jones, writing for Rugby League Week in February 2009.
“He’d still be (at the Warriors). I don’t think we’d ever let him go. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was captain.” – Jerome Ropati, January 2018 (NZ Herald).
“He was just such a big personality…I can still see him laughing, hear him laughing. That’s just my everlasting memory of him. It didn’t matter what was happening – good, bad or indifferent – he would end up laughing somehow. He was very humble, he had a lovely nature, got on with everybody, was really keen to learn.” – Ivan Cleary, January 2018 (NZ Herald).
Inevitably, Fai’s death had a shattering effect on the Warriors’ 2009 NRL campaign. Fai was poised for a breakout year and left a sizeable hole in the club’s injury-ravaged roster and took an immeasurable toll on his heavy-hearted teammates off the field. A season that promised so much ultimately garnered just seven wins and a bottom-three finish.
“You can’t say that’s the only reason we didn’t perform but it certainly had a pretty big impact on a lot of the guys,” Micheal Luck said in an interview for Warriors 25: Celebrating 25 Years of the New Zealand Warriors.
“The first few rounds we played on emotion and it all started to catch up with some people towards the back end. For a lot of guys it was their first experience with tragedy like that.
“Ivan (Cleary), and Donny Mann, our football manager, were terrific; John Hart had a pretty big influence on how we got through it, especially in the early weeks after Sonny passed away.
“I was closest of all those young guys to Simon (Mannering), a guy who rarely showed any emotion, and (I could see) the impact it had on him. It was a really tough period. There’s no textbook way to deal with that – I think we did an OK job as a club. But you can’t deny it had an effect on how we played that year.”
Fai’s memory remains an important part of the Warriors’ cultural fabric. The club’s Under-20s Player of the Year from 2009-19 was awarded the Sonny Fai Medal.