Brenton Helleur, a former Manu Samoa international and University club stalwart, is quitting rugby because he fears for his safety.
The 36-year-old halfback lacks confidence in the Auckland Rugby Union’s (ARU) willingness to protect players after being knocked unconscious in a recent match by what he alleges was a deliberate knee to his head.
The incident, which upset his three children watching on the sideline and left his nine-year-old son Kobe left in tears, occurred in the Gallaher Shield semifinal between University and Manukau Rovers in South Auckland on July 30.
Manukau midfielder Andrew Kaveinga was cited and faced a judiciary hearing which found no evidence of foul play at Williams Park. A week later, Kaveinga played in the final against Ponsonby at Eden Park won in late and dramatic fashion by Rovers.
Helleur, who came out of retirement this season to play first-five for an injury-hit University, said he was not informed of the hearing held on August 2 and therefore was unable to provide evidence. University, informed but not invited to attend, are appealing the hearing’s decision.
He described the process as “an absolute shambles” which he said was made worse by an incident the previous week in a round-robin match between the two teams at Colin Maiden Park where he alleges the same player connected with a punch to his chin in front of the referee.
University cited Keveinga for that incident, but there was found to be no case of foul play to answer. 1News has viewed footage of it, with Helleur saying the referee told him there was “nothing in it”.
There was no such footage of the alleged knee in the semifinal.
World Rugby’s guidelines for a “low-end” punching or striking incident is a two-week suspension. Sanctions for the deliberate use of a knee range from a four-week ban to 52 weeks.
‘I’ve lost faith’
Helleur and wife Alyssa said they wanted to speak out on the incidents because they felt there was a disconnect between Auckland Rugby’s messages and actions regarding alleged foul play.
In a statement, an Auckland Rugby spokesman said: “There is no place for foul play in the game, the expectation is referees deal with it when [seen] and there is also a judicial process under NZ Rugby’s rules to address it.”
The spokesman confirmed the alleged acts of foul play referred to by the Helleurs had been investigated, saying: “University Rugby Club made complaints against a Manukau Rovers player in successive weeks following their matches against Manukau Rovers.
“The first complaint was reviewed by an Independent Complaints Review Officer [who] deemed the incidents did not warrant the player to be ordered off and therefore did not require a hearing before the independent judicial committee.
“The second complaint was elevated to a hearing with the independent judicial committee.”
Read more: Manukau wins 1st Auckland club rugby title since 1973 after thriller
Manukau Rovers chairman Jason Wyks did not respond to several 1News invitations for comment.
Children Distracted by Dad’s Injuries
Helleur said the alleged knee left him with a large lump on the side of his head and bruising from his jaw to above an ear. Immediately afterwards he had no recollection of the event, but his memory of it has returned.
The mental effects and disappointment will last longer than the physical ones, although he said he was grateful for the support he had received from members of the University and Manukau clubs and others.
“I’m disappointed that the rugby career is over – even playing at lower levels – because the lack of care and protection makes you not want to play,” he told 1News.
“I won’t be coming back because there is no confidence that I can be looked after – I’ve lost faith in the player protection [process]. We rely on process and judicial systems to deal with things on the field. We are told not to retaliate to it and the system has failed.”
Helleur was particularly saddened that the incidents played out in front of Kobe and his daughters aged 11 and six.
Kobe, said to be well known to Helleur’s teammates and a frequent visitor to the dressing room for team talks and celebrations, as well as a keen player himself, was said to be distraught after seeing his father lying prone on the pitch.
“The heart-breaking moment after this incident was him asking his dad to hang up the boots for good – despite earlier persuading mum to let dad play again this season,” Helleur said.
“He was incredibly upset witnessing these incidents, and when [I was] knocked out a member of the public had to console him on the sideline.”
Helleur, a former Auckland and Harbor senior representative, said the incidents had not soured his passion for the game, but they had left him concerned about the direction the club game was heading.
“At the Auckland Union level they seem to be all talk, no action. There is no shortage of emphasis on player safety in the higher levels but it’s not filtering down through the union. The way the judicial process was run sounded like an absolute shambles .”
University chairman Dave Hutchens said he didn’t want to comment on the alleged foul play incidents due to the appeal, but added of Helleur: “He’s special and has always been a guy willing to help out. He’s selfless.
“He’s tried to retire a few times. He loves the club and is keen to help out whenever required. We’re very lucky to have people like that. He’s played rugby to a high level as well so he’s in no way obliged to do that.”
A career highlight for Helleur was being part of the Manu Samoa team that upset the Wallabies in Sydney in 2011 – the second of his two Test caps.
But having won two Gallaher Shield titles with University, the club also holds a special place in his heart.
“Taking on a challenge with teammates and the highs and lows that come with it,” he replied to a question about the other highlights of his career.
“The culture of a good team – many friendships made, often life-long. Varsity has a very positive, supportive culture. The players are respectful and play some great footy.”