By THOMAS HUKAHU
THE sudden passing of Amoa PNG men’s volleyball team’s long-time skipper Ravuiwa Mahuru (or Ravu Mahuru) on June 25 came as a shock as I was browsing through the sports pages of the two dailies of June 26.
The most consistent hitter and the longest-serving captain of our men’s volleyball skipper has passed on.
The first description that came to my mind of Mahuru as an athlete was “quiet warrior and reliable leader”.
He was a young man who was “cool and collected on and off the court and possessing a champion’s heart”.
He led both the national team as well his local association Vabukori Amateur Volleyball Association (VAVA)’s men’s team to many national championships where they have been undefeated for years.
Meeting Mahuru and others
It would have been great to see Mahuru leading the team this year to the Pacific Games in Apia, Samoa, to have another go again for the top prize in the regional competition.
It was with his leadership and expert guidance of the men’s coach of yesteryears, the late Tommy Lui, the team won bronze in the 2011 Pacific Games in Noumea, New Caledonia, and winning silver in the 2010 Oceania Championships where they lost to New Caledonia.
The Amoa men’s best performance in any regional tournament though was their gold-medal winning performance in the 2013 Mini Pacific Games on Wallis, Wallis and Futuna, the French territory.
It was in that mini version of the Pacific Games that I came to observe how successful the Amoa men’s team were under the leadership of Mahuru and Lui, both from Vabukori village, the home of VAVA.
I was then the press attaché of Team PNG to the Wallis and Futuna Games and reporting on our various teams’ performances of the two-week tournament and passing the news to our media outlets back at home.
(Another member of that successful Amoa men’s team then was the late Kato Ben Ottio, who left volleyball soon after the Mini Games to go on to play rugby league and was one of PNG’s best talents that got picked up by an Australian NRL club.)
I would have liked to sit among the relatives of the late Mahuru and his team mates during his funeral service last Friday and learn something of the journey of this champion who started with the national team at the age of 17.
That wish was not possible because I am in currently in Kavieng, New Ireland, and so I thought the next best thing I could do is pen my memories of the gold medal-winning performance of 2013 and my impression of Mahuru to celebrate his achievements as an athlete and his part as the leader of the 12 men who made up the Amoa men’s team to the Games.
(Incidentally, I also missed out on the late Lui’s funeral service in 2014. I received the news while I was out at Goroka for a week-long conference and could not make it back to Port Moresby. He saw me one time earlier in that year at Tokarara and asked me to help him with something, possibly with a news article. That was the last time I saw him.)
Remembering the men’s team in 2013
The indoor volleyball men’s team in the Wallis Games had Mahuru as captain, Lui as coach, Patrick Morea as team manager and Aaron Alsop as the high performance trainer.
It is my view that the most mature team in the PNG delegation at the 2013 Games was the men’s volleyball team and it may be due to the leadership shown by Lui and Mahuru.
The men’s team too was the quietest, like their leaders. They were like the quiet or silent warriors.
The Amoa team was also a prayerful team. They prayed for their games – the men’s as well as the women’s teams.
Even though they never voiced it, the men’s volleyball team were athletes on a mission – they went to Wallis to get the top prize despite the hurdle of facing the hosts, the Pacific Games champions, on their own turf.
How they did that would be a part of PNG volleyball history and lesson for future teams.
The men’s volleyball team were also our tallest athletes then, something that the volleyball federation back home was attempting to do to reduce the height advantage that other teams like Wallis and Futuna and New Caledonia had over our boys in past competitions.
I soon realised too that most of the players in the men’s team were village boys, particularly from Vabukori, a few from Tatana, and one from Moukele (Fishermen Island).
When they communicated among themselves, they used either Motu, Hula or Tok Pisin. I rarely heard them speak English among themselves because most of them eked out a living catching fish on weekdays and playing volleyball in the afternoons and weekends.
But they were our national representatives and they did us proud in 2013.
Gold medal performance in 2013
The Amoa men’s team in the 2013 Mini Games were amazing and helped PNG top the medal tally in the Wallis Games.
I watched them play their pool games (where they were unbeaten) and noticed the calm composure that the Amoa men had even when they were trailing the Wallis and Futuna team in the grand final match. They were focused, they were sure of what they were there to do.
On Sept 11, 2013, when they played Wallis and Futuna in the gold medal playoff, the cheers and stomping of feet by the local fans for their team in the tightly-packed Kafika Hall, on Wallis, was truly deafening.
The hyped-up local team came into the game firing from all corners. The Amoa men’s blocks were not as effective and the local team won the first set 25-16.
In the second set, the PNG men played a bit more careful and ensure that they kept up their blocks and just managed to clinch that 27-26.
In the third set, the tension was rising and the eager Polynesians took advantage of the PNG men not making very good passes and led to end it with a score of 25-20.
As the teams changed sides, I was worried amidst the deafening noise made by Wallisian supporters, knowing that if the home side won that set, the PNG men could go home with the silver medal and not the prize that they had aimed for.
I looked at the senior PNG players like captain Mahuru and setter Gia Kapa and realised that they did not look worried.
They were unfazed by the scoreboard or by the Wallisian supporters’ cheers and stomping. Their composure was one of calm and peace.
It was in the fourth set that I noticed something I had never seen before in a volleyball game.
The game started with the Polynesians firing from the front and back court, something they are good at.
However, it was also in that set that the PNG blockers Eric Itama, George David, Mahuru and others really succeeded in effectively shutting out the home side’s attack.
As the game went on, it was evident that the Polynesian power hitters were demoralised and some were making very basic errors like giving bad bumps to their setter. It was at that moment that I realised that the Amoa’s prayers were bearing fruit. God was really working.
And – it was as if Lui, Mahuru and all the other players knew that was going to happen.
It was apparent that fatigue and heat too was taking its toll on the Wallisians in the packed hall as errors were becoming too common for the Polynesians.
(After the game and back in the Games Village, I asked coach Lui about what I noticed, saying it was evident to me that God was having His way in their game towards the end. Lui just smiled as if that was normal for him and the team.)
When PNG won the fourth set 25-19, the deafening noise in the hall died. The Amoa men had put an end to the cheering of the Wallisian fans.
When the final set kicked off, Lui brought on second setter Kala Kila (as the stand-in libero) to deliver good bumps to Kapa who floated them strategically for Mahuru, Richard Rupa and others to gain valuable points.
Lui later said that call had never been done before but the fruits of that were evident as any setter like Kila knew what a good bump should be like for a good second pass to be made.
At the start of the final set, PNG played with great care and led all the way to end the game 15-11, win the gold medal and making history.
The final result: PNG beat Wallis and Futuna 16-25, 27-26, 20-25, 25-19, 15-11.
The Amoa men who achieved that included: Mahuru, Kapa, Itama, Ottio, David, Kila, Rupa, Veupu Kila, Jeffrey Gima, Micky Forova Arifeae, Tau Muri and Alu Ura.
Outsiders laud Amoa men
Two of the comments I heard from non-Papua New Guineans told of how others in the Pacific viewed the PNG men’s team.
Even before the Mini Games began, a member of the organizing committee in Wallis, a French man, said: “I watched the PNG men play in 2011 in Noumea and noticed that PNG has a very different style of playing. They are re-inventing the game of volleyball.”
Another Vanuatu man, who I spoke to one night while we were watching a game, said: “PNG men are just too fast.”
That is how PNG volleyball has advanced, not only here in PNG, but in the eyes of our neighbours in the Pacific.
And these people know that in recent years, the PNG men are only team in the Pacific to consistently challenge the French territories of Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and Tahiti for the top prize in volleyball.
And the late Mahuru and Lui, their team members, the PNG Volleyball Federation, the players’ local associations and families were part of this success story.
Mahuru, a professional
The last time I saw Mahuru was during the 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby.
I was then with Team Wallis and Futuna as their team attaché, as a volunteer assisting them during the tournament.
Wallis and Futuna had just beaten New Caledonia in the grand final and defended their title as the Pacific Games champions and they were taking photos with fans. (Sadly, the Amoa men did not do well in that 2015 Games and did not win any medal.)
Mahuru came to the Wallisian side after the match with a child of his in his arms and congratulated the Polynesians on their win, like a true gentleman and professional that he was.
That was when a Wallisian athlete asked me to take a photo of them, the Wallisian with Mahuru and his child.
It was apparent that the PNG captain then was known not only in PNG as a champion, he was also followed by other people in the region as well.
He will be remembered for some time yet as a champion and leader in the game.
To some us, we will better remember him as “the quiet warrior and reliable leader”.