When a chief dies:
the Aaron Hopa story

Aaron Hopa, right, with his close friend Todd Blackadder, after a game on the 1997 All Black tour to the United Kingdom. (Photo: Tracey Frame’s personal collection)

When a chief dies: the Aaron Hopa story

When Gordonton’s Aaron Hopa died in a tragic diving accident off Whangamatā on December 8, 1998, he left a legacy shaped by rugby, whānau, and aroha. Ben Stanley tells the story of the greatest All Black you never knew.

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I. Ready Now, Bro.

Anyone who ever saw Aaron Hopa play rugby will tell you the story of how he owned Zinzan Brooke on a wet Saturday afternoon at Eden Park.

A Ranfurly Shield challenge, Waikato was up against a virtual All Black lineup on September 30, 1995. Of the Auckland starting 15, 11 would play test rugby including one-name legends like Fitzy, Carlos and Zinnie.

Hopa was a 24-year-old rubbish collector from Gordonton, making just his second start for the Mooloo Men. The caveman-wild Taupiri No 8 had lit up the Waikato club scene over the last couple of years, but still felt raw at the provincial level.

Though he’d been on the bench for a pre-season game at the start of the year, Hopa had only been called into the Waikato squad a week and a half earlier for a start against Wellington. Deon Muir, who was watching from the Eden Park stands, had broken his leg against the touring Scottish, giving ‘Hops’ his chance.

Auckland were giving Waikato a rough reception, and would later win 26-17. Waikato prop Paul Martin remembers hooker Richard Kirke copping a fist in an early scrum, and the fever didn’t break. Zinzan decided to make the young rookie his target for the day. At one point, he held out the ball to Hopa and told him: “you want the fucking ball, come and get it.”

“Yep,” Hopa told him. “Yep. I’ll get it – but when I’m ready.”

Just before the end of the game, Waikato had a lineout five metres from the home team’s line. The ball had been slapped back towards Auckland, and Brooke was ghosting it into touch.

In dived Aaron Hopa of Gordonton, right between Zinnie’s legs, scooping up the ball with his long black mullet flowing – and scoring a try.

Anyone watching will tell you that Brooke, one of the greatest All Blacks of all-time, had a look of ‘who the hell is this guy?’ on his face.

Anyone telling the story will tell you that Hops stood up in front of Zinnie, handed him the ball and told him, cool as you like; “I’m fucking ready now, bro.”

Aaron Hopa playing for Waikato in the NPC (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

II. A Toot, in Gordonton

The drive from the cemetery to Ray and Vera Hopa’s house in Gordonton is short; no more than a kilometre. The urupā for local hāpu Ngāti Wairere, it is sacred ground in the North Waikato.

Ray and Vera come down regularly to see their son. The morning frost has burnt off late on the early July morning that Ray brings me up, but it’s still cold in the shadows. Among the Pākehā graves lie Ray’s father Abe, brothers Desmond and Ernie, half-brother Haunui, sister Taurima and two nephews, along with two of Vera’s nephews, as well. Sitting under a tall tōtara gifted to the Hopa whānau from the Waikato Rugby Union (WRU) is a huge slab of granite, standing taller than Ray’s waist.

Blasted from the Kaimai Ranges, the headstone was made rough and jagged on the outside as it was worked, but smooth in the middle. Just like Aaron, Ray told me. Ka nui o matou aroha ki a koe mo ake ake ake is etched under his name, along with a photo of him with his cap backwards and another phrase, in English: The best and most beautiful things in the world may not be seen nor touched but are felt in the heart.

A miniature Waikato Chiefs bus and an unopened can of Waikato Draught sit underneath, as well as flowers and a basketball. Twenty years ago today – December 8, 1998 – the man they honour – Aaron Remana Hopa – died in a diving accident off Slipper Island, near Whangamatā. He was 27.

Virtually every Waikato rugby player from that era will tell you they toot the horn when they drive past the cemetery, heading north or south. Muir – a former Waikato, Chiefs and NZ Māori skipper – turns down the stereo before he does and tells his kids “that’s uncle Aaron over there.” Often he’ll stop, like others.

Tracey Frame bent down and kissed the granite when it was unveiled, a year after Hopa’s tangi. She always loved the photo of her fiancé on its face; that faraway look in her fiancé’s eyes. The last time she saw him alive was the day before he died. Frame stood on the footpath in front of their Pukete house, as Hopa drove off for a second time, having forgotten something the first. They both said ‘I love you’ again.

“I don’t know if you could call it ‘you know before you know,’ but it sorta felt like it,” she told me later.

Aaron Hopa and Tracey Frame on holiday in Thailand. (Photo: Tracey Frame’s personal collection)

Matt Barlow bought his daughter Aaria here a month after his best mate died. Like his first child, he wanted ‘Hops’ to be the godfather: “same again, aye bro?” The dirt was still high on the grave that day, but he rested Aaria’s portable bassinet on top. He wanted Hopa to be the first to hold his daughter, who’d been born, at home, only 30 minutes before.

Ray, or ‘Koro’ as most know him, was there watching when it happened, by chance visiting his boy, too. Before we visited the grave, Ray told me the Māori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, came to the tangi, while I’d heard other whispers that Hopa might have been buried on the mountain at Taupiri. But Ray remained firm; his son would lie with his family, at the urupā in Gordonton. “[Aaron] had some real standing in the Waikato – we’d lost a quality man,” Muir, now the director of rugby at Rotorua Boys High, says. “Honestly, it was like someone from the Māori royal family – the rangitira – had died. It was that massive.”

Outside those who died while serving in war, Hopa is one of a small group of elite NZ rugby players to die during their playing career. Otago’s Alexander Armit, a star pre-All Blacks winger, was our first international to die from injuries sustained on the field.

Paralyzed during a game against Taranaki on August 26, 1899, ‘Barney’ Armit, who played nine games for NZ on a Australian tour in 1897, died from his injuries eleven weeks later. Bert Palmer, a three-test All Black hooker, suffered a broken neck while playing club rugby in Auckland on September 4, 1932, dying the next day.

Four years later, NZ Māori flanker Bernie Rogers died after hitting his head on a concrete floor in a Palmerston North hotel, following a disagreement with a teammate. The day before, he played his last game of rugby against Australia.

More recently, former Auckland and Counties first-five Nicky Allen, a talented 26-year-old two-test veteran, died of a head injury in a Sydney club rugby match in Wollongong, on October 7, 1984, while legendary All Black No 8 Jerry Collins was killed in a car accident in Beziers, France on June 5, 2015. He was 34.

While both were still playing, Collins and Allen were well out of the All Black orbit when they died, but Hopa had been named to the wider training squad for the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

Most, including All Black coach John Hart, considered Hopa – who’d been discovered by future British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland just four years prior – a virtual lock to head to the United Kingdom the following autumn. Like many of the All Blacks and Waikato legends I spoke to about Hopa this year, tears and sombre reflections have been common. Few have spoken publicly about their mate since his death.

Like the way international cricket was affected when Australian opener Phil Hughes died after a freak accident at the crease in November 2015, so too were the ranks of NZ rugby shook, for good. “It was a freak accident and it could have happened to any one of us,” Muir, a close friend of Hopa’s, says. “[But] for that to be the answer to Aaron’s death, for a finely tuned athlete, an All Black, a Chiefs player, well, it’s not enough, is it?”

III. This Kid is Something Special

Until you spend significant years there, it’s hard to imagine how someone could get misty-eyed about the Waikato. Hamilton has long worn scorn for its perceived bogan ways, while the wider region is often written off as Cow Cocky country. Beneath all smoke is some fire, but it’s in the little differences that you miss the truth of the Waikato.

Like the drive to work on those super foggy winter mornings, or the slow, beautiful hungover Sunday arvo road trips to Raglan. Like the way the Hilly or the Te Rapa Tav used to crank on a Friday night, or how it felt when John Mitchell lifted the Log o’ Wood at Eden Park in 1993, finally taking it off Auckland.

Beyond its distinctive three hoops, there’s just something about the red, yellow and black jumper. The nearest big province to Auckland, Waikato has long had an ‘us versus them’ chip on its shoulder – like the Cantab one, but with a North Island twist to it. For a largely rural province, rugby was always going to be the forum to address those frustrations.

Born at Hamilton’s Waikato Hospital on November 13, 1971, Hopa grew up in Gordonton, a Hamilton satellite village where his parents Ray, an ex-cabbie, and Vera, an occupational therapist, lived. Like his older siblings Jason and Nanita, he held the same iwi affiliations as their father; Ngāti Wairere and a touch of Ngāti Pikiao.

The Hopa kids were talented athletes from a young age, excelling at softball, tennis, soccer and rugby league; much to the chagrin of their rugby-loving father. Through their teens, Aaron and Jason both rose through the ranks at Hamilton City Tigers and Fairfield Falcons. It wasn’t until 1990 when Fairfield United’s playing numbers were running so low that Ray, the club’s stalwart, asked the boys to swap codes, along with a fair share of relatives from around the hāpu. “You might as well have called that team the Ngāti Wairere XV,” Ray says.

A lean, muscular ex second rower, Hopa, who was related to 15-test All Black Arran Pene, would throw a punch when a teammate needed help – and delighted in making the big hits. He, Jason, and Matt Barlow formed Fairfield Senior B’s loose forward trio before claiming the spots in the top team.

During the week the three loosies worked as rubbish collectors for Dave’s Tidy Bins, with council contracts in Cambridge, Te Awamutu and across the Waipa. Ray would often work with them. Work would start at daybreak and often wouldn’t finish until near dark. With no smoko or lunch breaks, the ‘dusties’ would only grab a greasy feed – McDonald’s was Hopa’s fave – when they got the chance. “Within the next half hour, it was burnt off [too],” Barlow says.

Though he’d been with her for a few years by then, and time with friends was always a dead cert, the boys started noticing Hopa spending more time with Frame. “[As we got older], sometimes he’d want to be with the boys more and he’d call and say ‘oh I’ve gotta do something with the boys – you understand,” Frame, who started dating a shy, sports-loving kid in the fifth form, says.

Aaron Hopa, Tracey Frame, and Matt Barlow (Photo: Tracey Frame’s personal collection)

“And then he’d slowly come in a bit more towards me. You know how it is when you’re young? Back and forward, back and forward.”

Despite Fairfield United being constantly mired at the bottom of Waikato Rugby’s second tier, word was getting out about their talented No 8. By 1993, Taupiri, then the club comp’s big team, started sniffing.

Though only 30, Gatland – who’d go on to coach Waikato, Ireland, Wales and the Lions – was the team’s player-coach and decided to scout out Hopa. The distinctive hits, industrious work ethic and a big black mullet bundled up under headgear quickly caught his eye. “I remember Gats coming back and saying ‘holy shit, this kid is something special’,” says Steve Gordon, a long-time Waikato lock who’d play two tests and become Hopa’s mentor. “[Hops] was a rough, skinny guy back then – a pretty wild-looking bugger. He just had a great array of skills aye, and a massive engine. A massive motor, because he was just so bloody fit. His sheer athleticism and confrontationalism – you knew he had it.”

Shifting to blindside flanker, Hopa’s two seasons for Taupiri were barnstorming and saw him elevated to make his first three Waikato appearances, including his debut off the bench against Bay of Plenty in the ‘95 pre-season. A broken wrist would rob Hopa of most of the 1996 campaign, consigning him to a part-time Chiefs contract the following year. But he came back strong with a massive NPC season in 1997. Gatland’s instincts, as they’ve often been proven over the years, were right; the kid was something special.

IV. All Black #967

The mid-90s Waikato rugby team was one of the best the province has ever produced, enjoying a period in which hard-worn experience matched perfectly with youthful risk-taking. Veterans like Warren Gatland, Steve Gordon, John Mitchell, Ian Foster, Duane Monkley and Graham Purvis laced up next to rising stars like Deon Muir, Royce Willis, Bruce Reihana, Scott McLeod, Rhys Duggan, Roger Randle – and Hopa.

Along with winning their first NPC title in 1992, Waikato claimed the Shield off Auckland the following year, as well as beating the touring Lions. Their 1997-2000 Shield era, which featured 21 defenses, is considered one of the Log’s best.

It was a difficult period in NZ rugby, with the sport negotiating the amateur-to- professional crossover awkwardly. Like most provincial sides back then, Waikato had a blue-collar soul when Hopa joined. Monkley, after whom the Mitre 10 Cup MVP medal is named, was a truck driver while Reihana was a concreter. Duggan would become a builder, as he still is today. Hopa, the first rubbish collector since Frank Bunce to become an All Black, was right at home.

“Everyone on the team just loved him,” Foster, now All Blacks assistant coach, says. “He was reasonably quiet, but he had a cheeky little side to him. He really just sat back, learnt and absorbed things. “When he went out on the park, his big strength was that he just kept the game simple. In those days, there were a lot more tackles that were side-on but he really embraced the front-on, big hits. With the ball, he had a lot of pace and bought a little bit of an offload game. There was [just] a whole lot to his game.”

Monkley recalls a teammate who was always accountable for his mistakes, and always wanting to pay the team straight back.

“If Aaron got penalised at a breakdown, he wouldn’t say anything,” the former flanker says. “He’d just put the ball down, walk back ten metres and when they took the tap kick, he’d smash them in the tackle.”

Recent stars like Kieran Read and Liam Messam were modern archetypes to whom many teammates likened Hopa’s style, while Gordon compared him to Taranaki legend Kevin ‘Smiley’ Barrett, the father of three future All Blacks. “There were some rough edges to his play,” legendary NZ Herald rugby reporter Wynne Gray would later write, “but there was much to admire about his raw energy, aggression and dynamism.”

Even before he made Waikato, bigger offers were starting to roll in. Australian league sides the Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters offered contracts. Later, in 1998, Crusaders coach Wayne Smith tried to lure him to Christchurch. Frame was keen on the league offers, with living in Australia appealing before rugby went pro in ‘95. “But he turned to me and said ‘hmm, my father is a rugby player – I’m sticking with rugby’,” she says. “This sport is going to go professional, [he said]. I know it. I’m not happy until I’m wearing that black jersey.”

Through this period, Hopa changed his diet, cut back on drinking and started a strict physical training regime. Every night at the same hour he’d head out to the garage, lifting weights, doing push-ups, and cranking his music. Frame remembers him re-watching every single one of his televised games and taking notes, while McLeod, a distant cousin, recalls late night knocks on the door that would lead to early hours strategy sessions.

Though he was now being paid by the WRU, he kept working as a dusty, to the irritation of Waikato coach John Boe. The more famous Hopa got, Barlow says, “the more we had to stop the rubbish truck for people to talk to him. We’d be like ‘come on, bro.’ He would make time to talk to everyone.”

Early in his rugby career, Aaron Hopa (second from right) also worked as a rubbish collector for Hamilton company Dave’s Tidy Bins. From left to right, his brother-in-law Wana, brother Jason and best mate Matt Barlow worked with him. (Photo: the Hopa Family Personal Collection)

Hopa, who would play just 44 first-class games in all, was fishing off the rocks at Ruapuke when he made the All Blacks in mid-October 1997. Hart rang, leaving several messages before Hopa got back to his parents’ place to get the news. Like future legend Richie McCaw four years later, Hopa is one of few players since the sport went pro to make the All Blacks with minimal Super Rugby experience.

Despite the notoriously bad ‘98 season, it was a strong All Blacks side picked for the ‘97 UK tour. Zinzan Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Ian Jones, Josh Kronfeld and Craig Dowd were some of the test forwards heading north, while illustrious names like Jonah Lomu, Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen filled the backline.

A member of the mid-week side, Hopa got to experience a type of touring now foreign to internationals. On the Friday before tests, the dirt-trackers would train hard and get on the beers afterwards. Sundays and Mondays would be training, Tuesday would be game day, and the rest of the week was for “enjoying one’s self,” according to midweek tour captain Todd Blackadder, who became close with Hopa in the UK.

“We had a bloody great time on that trip – it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on,” Blackadder, who now coaches Bath in England, says.

Hopa came off the bench in three matches, against Wales A at Pontypridd, Emerging England at Huddersfield and England A at Leicester. He made one start, against the English Rugby Partnership XV at Bristol on November 25.

Before the game, All Blacks management had to ring Frame, early in the morning back home, because Hopa needed to speak with her before he played. Game-day traditions for Fairfield, Taupiri, Waikato and the Chiefs stipulated she see him right before every game, outside the sheds, to give him a little pep talk. Playing for the All Blacks was no different.

He scored a try in the match while Ray, travelling on a fan’s tour group, watched on from the stands. Steve Gordon, then playing for Wellington, bumped into ‘Koro’ at one of the games, and remembers a smile the width of the Waikato.

Aaron Hopa, right, with his close friend Todd Blackadder, after a game on the 1997 All Black tour to the United Kingdom. (Photo: Tracey Frame’s personal collection)

This July, Ray, who, incredibly, missed his first playing season (at any level) for Fairfield United since 1957 this year due to a bad knee, proudly reminded me that his son remains the only ‘Yellowbelly’ to ever play for the All Blacks. Ray says the main things he remembers from the tour was that it was bloody cold and the game announcers couldn’t pronounce his whānau’s name correctly.

“It was like Hopper or Hoper, not Hopa (hor-pa),” he says. “My brother was with me. He said he’d go up and bloody tell them how.”

V. A Waikato Love Story

Renowned for being a tough bastard when he was young, Matt Barlow still retains a total ‘no bullshit’ edge to him. He’s a solid unit, whose limp is a reminder of the first of his life’s two big turning points. Having lost a leg in a motorbike accident in November ‘97, he now has a prosthetic limb. The other was losing his best mate.

“I’ve never been a twin of course, but to have someone so close taken away, there was just a massive void – and there still is,” he tells me. We were sitting in his office at Responsive Trade Education in Puketaha, where he helps school leavers into trade apprenticeships around the Waikato.

“It doesn’t matter when I go past Gordonton, there’s not one time I don’t give him a shout out.”

Barlow – Hopa’s No. 1 hunting, fishing and motorbike companion – holds up his right hand, curling down his middle and ring fingers and wiggling the rest. “I give him one of these dusty signals – chur, brother,” he says. “But you know what, later on I learnt, in sign language, that means ‘I love you’ too. I thought it was a heavy metal thing, but, bro, it was love all along.”

Barlow will head to see his bro at the urupā today, as he did on Hopa’s birthday, November 13. He does the same every year. He’ll probably drink a bourbon there and leave one for his mate too. Afterwards, he’ll go see Ray and Vera – and remember.

A bus-driver in his semi-retirement, I met Ray between runs at the Hopa family house in Gordonton. Hopa had lived at home until a year before he died, buying a house with Frame in Pukete. At home, he lived in a room at the back of the garage which was filled up with his gym equipment and motorbikes.

‘Koro’ was as welcoming and chipper as everyone had told me. Though it was over pikelets and a cup of tea, it could’ve been with an elbow and handle at the bar in a rugby clubrooms. I liked him straight away.

Jason is 48 now, lives outside Morrinsville, and works at Tatua Dairy Company. His kids Chase, Remana and Mikayla – Hopa’s beloved nephews and nieces – are in their early 30s and late 20s now. Nanita, 49, and Wana, 50, live in Hamilton, and have two of their own, born after Aaron died. The family have all dealt with Hopa’s death in different ways; Vera, for example, wasn’t comfortable speaking to me about him.

Ray is happier to talk. Whether it was about how Hopa’s dog Tori would run beside him during training jogs through the bush at Pukemokemoke, or the time his two boys crunched him in a tackle during a Fairfield training, he retold stories of his son’s youth with great gusto.

For Tracey Frame, talking about her one-time fiancé remains difficult. Now living in Brisbane and working as a Qantas flight attendant, I met her during a rare trip home, at her mother’s house in Maeroa, overlooking Waikato Stadium. At her mum’s place, Frame has kept a big stack of scrapbooks with cut-out newspaper articles from his playing career and all his former playing jerseys. At times she picks out his bad habits with a laugh. At others, tears flow readily. Even after 20 years, her love remains palpable.

“He was a man’s man,” she says, “with heart.”

Aaron Hopa’s fiancé Tracy Frame is consoled by All Black coach John Hart, with Aaron’s mother Vera on far left, during Hopa’s funeral service (Photo by David Hallett/Getty Images)

“That was a relationship that was going to last,” Kiwi Searancke, the Waikato coach when Hopa died, says. “She was good for him. He was never going to do anything to jeopardise that relationship – there was a lot of love there.”

Such was his devotion to Frame, Foster remembers the Waikato team anoint Hopa ‘the moral king,’ a nickname he didn’t shy away from. “[After the 1998 NPC Final], I remember him jumping on my bed the next morning, giving me a cuddle and telling me that he was the moral king,” Foster says. “He’d been out all night and all he could think about was his girl back home. That was Aaron, passionate about what he did and the girl he loved.”

Despite his obvious talent, Hopa often struggled with the profile rugby gave him. Frame, who worked as a hairdresser when they were together, remembers doing laps of the supermarket car park with Hopa before he decided to wait in the car for her. He hated being recognised. “Aaron was quite a sensing, feeling person,” Frame says. “He felt like often the rugby took away from him, from his whānau, friends and me – and he almost felt guilty because of it. He still just plugged away, and never gave up that dream. But he had that guilt because it took him away.”

Thinking of a secure life for her, and more time with his family and friends in the future, Hopa had already signed a contract with a professional club in Japan, due to start in 2000.

His All Blacks jumper had opened doors overseas. Hopa knew tha, after a couple of years abroad he could ensure that he and Frame would be more comfortable as they got older. Muir, McLeod and Willis would all later play in Japan. “Let’s face it, a lot of why people stay in the game is ego,” Searancke says. “You need that recognition and validation. Aaron didn’t need it. He was happy in his own skin.”

Whatever else happened in Hopa’s life – from signing contracts to sponsor promos – he wanted his girl beside him. The weekend before he drove to Whangamatā, Frame says her fiancé did all the chores that had been piling up for weeks; mowing the lawns, putting together a tool shed and trimming the hedges. Getting things ready.

On each of the three nights before Hopa left for the dive trip, Frame woke up from her sleep, crying. The first night, she dreamt that Hopa died while he was in the water, by a boat. In the second, her hand was reaching down to Hopa. The third – the night before he left – she remembers walking past rows and rows of friends doing a haka. Frame woke up Hopa all three times and told him she didn’t want him to go to Whangamatā. He told her that he had to go, to not to think those thoughts and that he didn’t want to know about them.

Frame leans back in her chair, slowly slipping her hands together and looking down. She is crying now, the pain she continues to hold making her words shake and her body tremble.

“I woke up [each time] and told him ‘don’t go.’ ‘I can’t not go, it’s a team bonding,’ he said to me. I don’t know if it was my warning, but I felt guilty for that, for years. “Why did I not stop him? Why did I not take the keys off him? I was strong and I told him, but he still went. Why didn’t he listen to me?”

VI. Whakahau

When the Waikato boys left the wharf at Whangamatā on the morning of Tuesday December 8, 1998, the skies were blue and the water glassy. With only two dives left to complete their tickets, there’d easily be time to grab some crayfish after they were done, which Hopa had promised to bring home to his future wife for dinner.

Along with Muir, Martin, Willis, prop David Briggs and flanker Dean Angelsey, Hopa was one of a small group of Chiefs players – all had been selected by coach Ross Cooper for the ‘99 squad the weekend before – completing their dive training.

Muir and Duggan, both long-time divers, had introduced them to it. A week before the 1998 NPC Final – they were thrashed 49-20 by Otago in Dunedin on October 25 – the Waikato Times had even written a story about the group’s diving passions.

A keen fisherman, Aaron Hopa (second from the left) was often joined by his father Ray (far left), best mate Matt Barlow and brother Jason Hopa. (Photo: the Hopa Family Collection)

Denis Shepherd, the team physio and experienced diver, and Kruger Wetere, a friend of the boys, came too. John Campbell, a highly regarded Hamilton dive instructor, led the group. Putāruru’s Darryl Rabbitt, whom none of others knew, was also involved.

On the Monday, the boys did their first two dives without issue and then grabbed some kina for a barbecue at a friend’s bach, where they were all staying. They popped out to the local RSA afterwards to shoot some pool. Angelsey had a beer, but with a Chiefs’ fitness test on Wednesday the rest kept to the waters. They’d be home by 10pm, too.

On a RSA phone, Hopa, who had missed the recent NZ Māori tour to Scotland with a niggly shoulder, took the chance to ring Frame, who he was due to wed in January 2000. On the phone in Pukete, she could hear the clink of pool balls and the bar’s music. She could hear the boys giving Hopa stick and him laughing it off.

The pair had a little phrase – ‘colourful, over and over’ – that Hopa used when he was too embarrassed to say ‘I love you’ in front of the boys. He told her that, and told her that he was having a blast. Before they hung up, Frame remembers the John Lennon song ‘Watching the Wheels’ coming on the background.

The next morning, a wind change made the water choppy so Campbell and Collins decided on a sheltered spot on the eastern side of Slipper Island, which is referred to by local iwi as Whakahau. Now privately owned, Ngāti Hei celebrate Tuokiokio as the island’s last great chief.

It was just after 9.45am. The boys got their gear ready, Campbell gave a thorough 40 minute briefing, and they were in the water at around 10.30am.

The group paired off – ‘Hops’ and ‘Briggsy’ were together – for a basic underwater compass exercise, before they were all to conduct the final task on the ticket – a simulated emergency ascent.

Emergency ascents are practised to ensure divers know the proper procedure to follow if they ever run out of air. When learning, the trainee links arms with the instructor, who monitors them, and they exhale the entire distance to the surface. Crucially, the rate of ascent must be less than the bubbles of air you are exhaling.

Campbell, who took the guys down in groups of four, got through everyone without a problem, with Hopa the final student. Sitting at around nine metres of water, only twenty minutes after they got off the boat, Campbell instructed Hopa to take a full breath of air from the tank and tilt his head backwards.

According to the Coroner’s report, he did those tasks, gave Campbell the OK hand signal and away they went. Neither had a problem getting to the top, and once they were there, Hopa told Campbell that things were good. Campbell told him he had done well.

Floating over by the boat’s anchor, the boys watched the pair get to the surf without issue. “We were looking over, talking, and expecting him to swim over,” Muir says. “Then the instructor yelled out ‘boys, I need a hand, something’s wrong here’.”

Muir saw Hopa fade back into the water. He and Briggs rushed over to help Campbell, pulling Hopa’s gear off as they made it to the charter boat.

He remembers his mate panting, as if he had been concussed, when they hauled him aboard, and still having a pulse. An oxygen mask was applied but 30 seconds later, Hopa stopped breathing.

Martin, and then Shepherd and Campbell, started mouth-to-mouth, but shortly after his pulse stopped, too. Muir remembers him starting to cough up water, but “then we lost him again.”

Collins had gunned the engines for Whangamatā by then, a trip that took a lifetime-long 23 minutes. An ambulance was waiting when they arrived.

The boys stood aside, in hope. Briggs started praying. But the moment they knew was when a medic covered their friend with a sheet. It was 11.55am at the wharf, and Aaron Remana Hopa was declared dead.

“We were grown men in tears,” Muir says. “We didn’t know what to do.”

VII. Watching the Wheels Go Round

Those who knew and loved Aaron Hopa will never forget where they were when they found out.

McLeod was out playing golf. Randle was told by a courier driver. Searancke was in Wales coaching a youth rep side, got a phone call from Reihana, and took the next plane he could get back home. Then living in Waihi, Gordon was told by his wife, who, like most others, heard it on the radio.

Barlow got a phone call from Jason and started walking down the road towards his bro’s place in a blur.

Frame was half finished with a client when Ngaire, Deon’s partner, walked into her hairdressing salon, white as a ghost. At first she thought something had happened to Deon. But no. “Tracey,” Ngaire said, “Aaron’s dead.”

Frame called her a liar, put down her scissors and walked away. But as she looked back, two police officers and Foster’s wife Leigh walked in. “And then,” she says, “my whole life, just out the door.”

Tracey Frame leans down to kiss Aaron Hopa’s headstone at its unveiling in Gordonton in December 1999. If her fiancé hadn’t died, the pair would have been married in January 2000. (Photo: Tracey Frame’s personal collection)

By the time she arrived back in Pukete, cars lined both sides of the street and a huge media mob were gathered in front of the house. Inside, all the furniture had been pushed out and a marquee had been put up in backyard.

She remembers heads going down when she entered the lounge. The Whangamatā boys were there already, having been picked up by Foster and Ross Cooper who drove them, in silence, straight there. Led by Muir, who had identified Hopa’s body and told Ray and Vera, the whole team came up to her.

The tangi at Ngāti Wairere’s Hukanui marae was called for Saturday, December 13; exactly a year to the day that Tracey and Aaron had gotten engaged. On the Friday, Hamilton came to a stop as Waikato farewelled a Chief.

The hearse was driven down Victoria Street and taken to Rugby Park, where the team carried Hopa around for a posthumous lap of honour. The streets were lined with people wearing Waikato jumpers.

More than 2000 are said to have attended the tangi, including Hart, Matt Te Pou (the NZ Māori coach), the majority of the All Black squad, and the entire Waikato and Chiefs teams. Even the Shield was there.

Hart spoke, describing Hopa as a “rugby warrior” who “showed me quickly that [he] epitomised the values of the All Blacks – humility, honesty, hard work, dedication [and] fair play.” Seven weeks prior, after the NPC Final in Dunedin, he had told Searancke that in Hopa he found his No 8 for the ‘99 World Cup.

Barlow gave a eulogy. He, Foster, Jason, Wana, Muir and Angelsey were among the pallbearers. When Hopa’s casket left the marae for the urupā, All Black Norm Hewitt led a hundreds-strong Ka mate haka. Frame walked past them all, trailing the hearse.

Before he arrived, the rugby boys had dug their mate’s grave, working in shifts until it reached the height of Waikato lock Mark Cooksley, who was 2.05m tall.

Hopa was buried in his All Black number ones, and his kit bag filled with his headgear, boots, mouth guard and a packed lunch. Every Waikato player took off the team tie and put it in, while Bluey, the team tackling trophy, was slipped in too. A lily, which Frame wanted to carry down the aisle at their wedding, was placed in his hands.

Answers to Hopa’s death were hard to find. At an inquest held at the Waihi District Court the following March, the cause of death was given as extra-alveolar air syndrome, including cerebral arterial gas embolism.

Essentially, gas bubbles had entered or formed in Hopa’s brain, knocking him out before he had a brain aneurysm. Campbell told the Court that Hopa, whose equipment was brand new, was one of the best students he’d ever had.

Though coroner Mike Curtis suggested the brute size of Hopa’s lungs might have contributed to his death, he summarized it as “tragic bad luck,” which made grieving even harder.

A plaque from the casket was placed in the home changing sheds at Rugby Park, and the Mooloo No 6 jumper retired for a season, but both the Chiefs and Waikato struggled in 1999. Muir, who had Frame live with him and Ngaire for six months after Hopa died, wishes he hadn’t played at all.

“We were big physical men but we were tainted,” he says. “We tried to use it as a motivator but for the ones involved, for me, it just gave me a hollow feeling of not having our mate there.

“We were trying to give our all but if I’m really being honest, I didn’t want to be there. It probably would have been the worst season of my life, dealing with that and trying to play footy.”

These days, the Aaron Hopa Trophy is awarded by Waikato at the end of each season to their finest provincial player. Ray often hands it out. This year’s winner, Kylem O’Donnell, was just nine when Hopa died.

“Some young guys now playing for Waikato weren’t even born when Aaron died,” Gordon says. “But for our generation he had a massive impact. The people who saw him play, who witnessed him as a person, they won’t forget.”

Naming his daughter after his mate, Barlow didn’t know then that the Māori translation of Aaria is ‘deep water.’ Turning 20 in January, she is now a law student at Waikato University. Her dad keeps the Chiefs jersey and All Blacks shorts that his mate gave him as prized possessions, along with Hopa’s fishing rod, which he had the stainless guides rebound in Waikato red, yellow and black.

Hamilton came to a standstill the day before Aaron Hopa’s tangi on December 13, 1998. The Waikato team gave the All Black a posthumous lap of honour of Rugby Park, which also served as a place for fans to pay tribute to their hero, like this newspaper clipping on the fence outside. (Photo: Hopa family collection)

Like Ray and Vera, Frame has never shaken Hopa’s death loose. You could tell that from being around her and feeling the extra weight she carried. She had a great romance, a great love, and it was over before she knew it.
I remembered a story she’d told me about sitting in the garden a few weeks after Hopa’s tangi. She’d had a bad day and just sat watching the sprinkler turn.

On the stereo inside she heard the lyrics: I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round/ I really love to watch them roll/ No longer riding on the merry-go-round/ I just had to let it go.

She hadn’t heard the song since she last spoke to Aaron, among the clinking of pool balls at the Whangamatā RSA.

“It was like he was right there,” she said.

VIII. Rough on the Outside, Smooth in the Middle

There’s a world where Aaron Hopa plays World Cup rugby for the All Blacks, takes a contract in Japan and, one day, buys a house at the beach with his wife Tracey. Maybe he runs a fishing charter or speaks te reo, like Koro expected him to pick up, like some little mokopuna, too.

“He’d be skinny with a big gut,” Rhys Duggan says, with a laugh. “Long legs. I don’t think you’d get the mullet off him, a few grey hairs. He’d still be a big man, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of what ifs, aye. What if he did this, or did that. What would his kids be like?”

Muir and Blackadder both admit they would have played far less rep rugby if Hopa hadn’t died. “I think about that,” Muir says. “He would have been a legend of All Black rugby, don’t get me wrong. A great All Black.”

Blackadder agrees. Like every other ex-teammate I spoke to, he still thinks of ‘Hops’ often; the man and the rugby player. “Their story is the ultimate New Zealand [story],” he says of Hopa and Frame.

“There is a dream and a passion. Their story is the story of hard work, humble beginnings, and working your ass off to create a better life for yourselves. To have that all taken away is just terrible.

“The thing that brought us together was the rugby – but it was never about the rugby. He was just one of those kind of blokes you come across – they’re special people. I can’t help but to think about the contribution he would have made to Waikato rugby, New Zealand rugby, and his community.

“As a role model he would have given so much hope to so many New Zealanders. He was a very unique, special person – he didn’t take a lot, but he gave a lot. His mana rubbed off on a lot of good people.”

Regardless of rugby’s social ills, it remains a pathway for young Kiwi men and women to test themselves against the world; where we can change ourselves for the better – and help pull others up as we do.

Ray Hopa at his son Aaron’s grave at the Gordonton cemetery. The cemetery is the urupā for Ngāti Wairere, which is Ray and Aaron’s hāpu. (Photo: Ben Stanley)

For Fairfield United, Taupiri, Waikato or the All Blacks, Aaron Hopa did that. Whether it was peeling off the back of a ruck, laughing with the boys in the changing sheds, in the cab of a rubbish truck, or out diving, he did it. Back at home with Ray, Vera, Jason, Nanita and Tracey, he’d do the best. Colourful, over and over.

Beyond the old rugby alamanacs, Hopa’s traces are still there for the rest of us to find too. In an unopened can of Waikato Draught, a tiny Chiefs bus and a slab of granite at the Gordonton urupā. A toot of a car horn on the way past.

That toot is for Hops; the bro, the future husband, the Chief – and any of the weekends before the diving gear went in the boot for Whangamatā. Think of this: Aaron and Tracey at home in Pukete on a Sunday morning.

A little hung-over, a bit of coffee and some eggs on toast. The stereo cranking. Aching hammies, and a good game of rugby with the boys the day before. An afternoon ahead out on the water and a bit of kai moana for dinner. A night ahead with the one you love best.

This story was made possible by The Spinoff’s Longform Fund for investigative journalism, and in collaboration with RugbyPass. Click below to support our investigative journalism.

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