‘Cousins’ Australia and New Zealand exude Invictus spirit in wheelchair rugby clash

Beneath New Zealand’s stirring haka, Warrant Officer PJ Harimate reflected on much more than trying to score yet another rugby win for his country over their Trans-Tasman rivals.

For the New Zealand Defence Force veteran, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma two years ago, being able to play a part alongside his teammates was tantamount to victory. It was also a tribute to his family, whose support through thick and thin has been unwavering.

“I went through about eight or nine months of chemotherapy and now I’m in full remission. I’ve come out the other side,” the NZDF transportation expert said.

“I got a bit down at first. When anyone gets cancer, it’s a very tough thing. I’ve also had some family and friends pass away recently. My mother passed away in February, so it’s been a very hard time.

“But I’m still serving after 35 years and I still love it. My wife’s supported me all this time, it’s a long time for her. I wouldn’t have made it this far without her.”

New Zealand’s wheelchair rugby campaign didn’t go as far as they may have hoped – USA, Australia, UK and France got the better of them in the round robin clashes – but the experience of playing in front of a loud and passionate crowd at Invictus Games Sydney 2018 was hugely uplifting for the group.

“In as far as the Invictus Games being a vehicle to rehabilitate and recover in one way or another, it’s really fantastic,” said Harimate.

“That’s the great thing about the Invictus Games – it’s not about the medals, it’s about participating and meeting all the other inspiring people here.”

There was no better example of this than when, in the final stages of the game between New Zealand and Australia, Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton from the host nation placed the ball in the lap of opponent George Nepata, who is quadriplegic, and cheered Nepata on to score a goal.

It’s that sort of spirit that drew Harimate to the Invictus Games. While watching friends and workmates compete at the Toronto Games in 2017, Harimate – despite his cancer battle – decided to he wanted to take part.

“There were some magnificent stories told, I watched it on social media, on live streaming, and our competitors there were really great,” he said.

“And, just watching that, it was really inspiring for me. I thought I’d give it go and go for selection.”

Barely a year later, Harimate played in the golf competition on the eve of the Sydney Invictus Games Opening Ceremony, competed in cycling at the Royal Botanic Garden, wheelchair rugby, and still has archery and wheelchair basketball to come.

“It’s been magnificent. At the golf I met John Key our former Prime Minister, got a picture with Stephen Moore, which was great – I’m a keen rugby man – and had a good chat. Everyone was saying ‘Oh, what are you doing? He’s an Aussie rugby player!’ But it’s not about that. On the field there’s a rivalry, but off the field we’re cousins.”

David Sygall
Invictus Games 2018