By PHILIP CHANDLER
A charismatic Queenstown community stalwart who died on Sunday is being remembered as big-hearted, inspirational and fun-loving.
And also for his pioneering role in introducing foreign players into Japanese rugby.
Merv Aoake passed away, after a short battle with cancer, the day before his 63rd birthday, leaving behind his wife Maree and children Ana and James.
A proud Maori and a gentle giant, he’s also left behind literally hundreds of people he’s inspired and mentored.
After he and his family moved to Queenstown in 1992, he had a variety of roles, including teaching PE and Japanese at Wakatipu High and, for the past 11 years, as a community social worker with Central Lakes Family Services.
There were coaching roles in sports like rugby, junior sailing and basketball.
He also served three years as a district councillor and was an active Lions Club member and part of the celebrated male ballet troupe that performed at annual Christmas Shows, including last December’s.
What’s less known is the mana Merv was held in, in Japan, from long stints there as a rugby player and then a coach.
He initially travelled there with a Canterbury University team, then in ’87 he and two teammates were invited back to play for a company team in Kumamoto, in southern Japan – becoming that country’s first foreign-contracted players.
He and Maree ended up living there for five years, during when both their children were born.
Merv also learnt to speak fluent Japanese.
Maree, who’d first met him when they were both studying at Otago University, says she used “woman’s logic” in then choosing Queenstown to move to.
Since his home town was Matamata, in the Waikato, and her’s was Gore, it was halfway, “because it’s two hours by air and two by road”.
After three-and-a-half years at Wakatipu High, Merv was lured back to coach in Japan, starting a nine-year stretch where he split his time between there and Queenstown.
Latterly, he continued to go over to voluntarily coach the Osaka police team.
A Facebook post this week says he was “a true pioneer” who “gave so many foreign players opportunities to play in Japan”.
One such was All Black Arran Pene, who went there in ’96 after his NZ playing days were over.
He believes it was Merv’s personality and Maori culture that endeared him to the Japanese and helped set up the pathway that people like him followed.
Maree says when they returned to Japan more recently, including last year for the Rugby World Cup, Merv was worshipped by the Japanese.
But she notes he was also inspirational in his many Queenstown roles, too, often hearing how he’d turned around people’s lives at Jigsaw Central Lakes, now Central Lakes Family Services, for example.
Maree says his cancer diagnosis in January was a shock because he’d been in good shape, only six months earlier, charging up to Ronda, in Spain, on a European cycling tour with other locals.
In his final days, she believes he was at peace, while still displaying his trademark humour.
After an update on his situation from an oncologist in his Christchurch hospital ward, she says Merv was asked if he had any queries.
“He goes, ‘am I going to get to see the next episode of Married at First Sight?”‘
His local funeral service was held on Wednesday.
His tangi is being held at Te Ohaki marae, near Matamata, this Sunday.