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The man on the white horse

BIG John, the last of the “old time East Coast cowboys”, has died after a short illness, aged 78.

John Manuel was a revered figure in rugby circles and the wider Coast community who presented an iconic image as the man on the white horse at Ngati Porou East Coast rugby matches.

The horse’s name was Tore and his mane, tail and fetlocks would be painted in East Coast blue.

Visiting teams were “absolutely astounded”, said Gisborne district councillor and former East Coast Rugby Union chairman Bill Burdett.

As a mentor he “revved up” the Coast team before kickoff and travelled to their matches in venues as far away as Oamaru in the South Island.

He was very active in and loved the Waiapu club.

He served on the union including as president and patron, and was a life member, said Mr Burdett.

But Mr Manuel was more than an enthusiastic supporter.

He was a mainstay in the East Coast sides of the 1960s as a lock and loose forward utility and was selected for the Poverty Bay-East Coast side to play the 1966 Lions.

Mr Manuel was devoted to Rangitukia, the place where he said he had “shed tears and blood from infancy to adulthood”.

He told TVNZ’s Waka Huia documentary programme that his moniker as “the last of the East Coast cowboys” came from the Ngati Porou C Company of 28 Battalion during World War 2.

He was named after his uncle John who was killed on Crete.

Big John was not a reference to his size, but to his work ethic, he said.

In reference to the song — the 1961 hit Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean — he said, “I’m a good John”.

His father, Henare, a shepherd, taught him to ride a horse.

A horse provided mobility and stature, he said.

Mr Manuel was of that generation who were forbidden to speak Maori.

He later became active in kohanga reo and promoting te reo and tikanga.

Mr Manuel went to teachers college at the age of 35 and taught in Wellington and on the Coast.

His life skills rather than “academic smarts” prepared him for teaching, he said.

Mr Manuel was proud of his Spanish heritage and was a strong supporter of the frequent Jose Manuel reunions.

He said he had the phone number of the Spanish ambassador and could ring him at any time.

New Zealand Rugby board member and East Coast president Bailey Mackey is among the many who have paid tribute.

“Kua hinga te totara i te waonui a tane.

“Rest easy Uncle Big John.

“A man mountain in so many ways.

“A staunch rugby man for Waiapu and Ngati Porou East Coast and anything and everything Rangitukia.”

John and Matiria, nee Pewhairangi, were married in 1962.

Mr Manuel is also the loved father and father-in-law of Shayne (step-daughter), Rau and Jack, John and Yvonne, Andrea, Milton and Leah, and Russell and Cushla, and the loved koko of his many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

He is lying at O Hinepare Marae, Rangitukia.

His funeral service will be held at the marae at 11am on Thursday, followed by interment at Rangitukia.

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