Oriental-Rongotai players Paulo Aukuso and Whetu Henry recently became the top team’s first two double centurions, reaching the 200-Premier game milestone in consecutive weeks.
Both out of Rongotai College, they have given unwavering service to the Miramar club for the best part of a decade and a half and this week prepare to host a Jubilee Cup semi-final against Wainuiomata.
As local supporters and opponents alike know, Whetu is a specialist tighthead prop (and also the team’s assistant coach this year) and Paulo is a utility back but perhaps best known as a blockbusting centre in a similar vein to teammate Ma’a Nonu whom he has sometimes been mistaken for.
We caught up with the two players following their recent milestone matches.
Congratulations on reaching 200 games for Ories, did you play junior rugby for the club and how did you arrive at the Polo Ground?
Whetu Henry: Growing up I was a league player and played for Harbour City, a family club that a lot of Henrys played for. When I switched to rugby I played for Poneke before moving to Ories.
Paulo Aukuso: Yes, I started playing for Ories U11s. My most memorable moment from my junior days was playing with a skinny young flanker who is now my coach – Mark Reddish AKA lunch box!
Have you always played the position that you do now, or were you playing somewhere else in your early life as a rugby player?
Whetu: I was laughing at Paulo’s Story about his position change, and that he started as a Prop but because of his speed they moved him to the backs. I'm the opposite – I started off as a back and because of how fast I was I was moved to prop!
Paulo: My first position was playing as a prop – that lasted one game, I then got moved into centre after my coach realised I was fast and breaking tackles. I have played in the midfield for most of my rugby career but have had stints in the wing.
You both went to Rongotai College – do you have a highlight or favourite game or moment that stands out playing for the First XV at school?
Whetu: Paulo and I played a lot of rugby together at Rongotai College but I think we both agree being 2003 Premier 1 1st XV Champions is our main memory.
Paulo: Winning the Premiership in 2003 would be the highlight, and also being sponsored by Ories to attend IRANZ that same year but I couldn’t complete the programme due to an ankle injury.
Can you recall your first Premier club rugby game?
Whetu: I can’t really remember my first game being so long ago haha, but I do remember my first season being very challenging and learning a lot about playing Premier rugby.
Paulo: It was in 2000 when I was still at school as a 5th former [Year 11], my uncle Lui Aukuso asked me to come and reserve for the Premiers as they were short. The game was against Tawa and I jumped on to the wing for the last 20 minutes. I was considered big for my age when I was at Rongotai College so I didn’t look out of place but when I jumped on I was scared haha.
What about reaching your 100thgame – memories of that occasion?
Whetu: I remember my 100th game, it was against Wainuiomata at the Polo Grounds. It was the coldest, rainiest day ever and if you know the Polo Ground on a rainy day, you couldn't tell who was who. I do remember we lost that game too.
Paulo: I can’t really remember my 100th game except the capping presentation. However I did reach my 100th game pretty quickly and my next goal was to get to 150 games. It’s taken a while to get to 200 games as I was playing overseas for a few years and missed some games due to injuries.
Is there a game or moment playing for Ories that sticks out as a highlight?
Whetu: A couple of memorable occasions stick out to me. One is playing alongside my little brother Jarrod and winning the 2011 Jubilee Cup.
Paulo: A highlight playing for Ories was winning the Jubilee Cup in 2011 – that was an awesome feeling. I think we ended up celebrating that whole week.
What about playing alongside leading players and family?
Whetu: That’s one of the great things about Ories - when our representative players can, they will play with us. Paulo and I have both played with a lot of players over the years and there are always special times you will remember playing with certain people. One year I remember we had six sets of brothers all playing in the team, and it is always easier to play alongside family. I have always looked to guys like Lui and Faa’vae who are club legends and I have learnt a lot from them on how to play in the Premier grade.
Paulo: It is always good to play alongside my cousins Julian and Ardie, as well as Ma’a, Matty and our other rep players and everyone gets a buzz when they are playing. However Ories is a family club and we play and support each other regardless of whether you are a rep or club player.
A word on the opposition – who have been some of your tough and respected rivals in club rugby?
Whetu: I've played against so many players, but I will talk about props, Big Fui, Finnbarr, Arden David, Atilla Va'a and Apa Hemi have always been tough opponents and I have always had to be on my game against them.
Paulo: The games against our Eastern Suburbs neighbours, Marist St Pats and Poneke are the hardest ones as you are playing against mates and family and you know them quite well. Tons (Faatonu Fili A.K.A Falph) the Magician is someone who can change the game if you don’t mark him properly.
What representative teams have you been proud to play for?
Whetu: Making the Lions and being part of the Hurricanes environment was great and my family were all proud, but the team that I always love playing for is the Wellington Maori team. My first senior rep team and a team that makes me proud to be part of.
Paulo: I love playing for the Wellington Samoans, there is a strong brotherhood when playing for this team. It’s the only time that I can give Whetu and Andy Ellis the lip when they are playing for Wellington Maori. A couple of memorable moments are: winning the Hong Kong 10s with the HSBC Penguins and my recent stint in Boston, America playing for Mystic River where we won the National Championship.
How important is it to help develop the next generation of players coming through the ranks?
Whetu: To me passing on the knowledge I have is most important. To me someone else gave me this knowledge so it’s not mine to hold on to. This is one of the main reasons I always give back. I mentor a lot of front-rowers, if they ask me I will help. On top of the Ories team I coach girls rugby, my school team St Catherine’s College, and also have helped St Mary's College. I help out with juniors at our club and I help out at my old college Rongotai with anyone that needs help. I will always make to time to pass my knowledge on whenever I can.
Paulo: It is important to develop the players coming through. I think school leavers should play at least a season of club rugby to prepare them for the professional environment or as we would say back in the old days - to harden them up! I haven’t given much thought to mentoring or coaching as I am quite a reserved person. If Whetu wants to, we might coach a junior team next year!
The last word – is retirement in the vernacular right now?
Whetu: Not anytime soon - I have to play more games than Paulo, then I’ll think about it haha!
Paulo: I haven’t given it much thought about retiring or hanging up my boots, knowing my mum she would want me to continue playing for a while so she has someone to watch other than my younger brother Matthias! Whetu can retire since he’s the oldest in the team haha!