'I would love to represent both sides of my family': Gagai's dilemma

Dane Gagai has been teaching his son Dante how to perform the haka and plans to take his mother Tania to visit family in New Zealand later this year - but the South Sydney star is undecided about whether to make himself available for the Maori All Stars.

Gagai, who is considered one of the NRL’s Indigenous leaders, is in the unique position of being eligible for both teams in the revamped Harvey Norman All Stars match at Melbourne’s AAMI Park on February 15 as he has Torres Strait Island and Maori heritage.

The Kangaroos three-quarter has represented his father Ray’s family by playing for the Indigenous All Stars in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 fixtures and had intended to do so again but he also wants to honour his mother’s Maori background at some stage.

“I haven’t really thought too much about it because I am focused on what we are doing here at South Sydney but if the opportunity arises I would love to be able to represent both sides of my family,” Gagai said. “It is definitely a tough decision and something I would have to think more about.”

Coincidentally, Kiwi cultural experts have suggested Gagai’s surname should be pronounced “Nanai” but he said it was from his father’s side of the family, whereas it is his mother who has New Zealand heritage.

“I have had a couple of Samoans come up and ask me if it is asked ‘Nanai’, but it is ‘Gagai’ because that is from my father’s side,” he said.

“My dad was born in Mackay, but his parents – my grandparents – were born in the Torres Strait so that is where that side of the family is from.”

His mother, Tania, is the sister of Parramatta back Josh Hoffman’s father, Shane, and they are from a large extended Maori family in New Zealand.

As a result, Gagai grew up supporting the Kiwis and the All Blacks but he chose to play for the Kangaroos at Test level as he was born and raised in Australia.

“Growing up, watching rugby league I supported the Kiwis and because of all my uncles and aunties in New Zealand I just supported the All Blacks,” he said. “I just want to represent my family the best way I can so when you get put in these situations it is a difficult choice.”

Whether he has to face the haka or perform it won’t worry Gagai as he was one of the leading players in helping to devise the Indigenous war cry performed at All Stars matches since 2015.

He is now teaching his son Dante to perform the haka.

“It actually started in the World Cup when we played against Samoa in Darwin,” Gagai said. “My partner [Kelly] sent me a video of him trying to copy what they were doing so I have taught him the New Zealand haka.

“I feel absolutely blessed to be in the position I am in - to have two absolutely strong cultural backgrounds, being a Kiwi and Indigenous Australian. My upbringing has been nothing short of fun, and that is why I would like to look at the opportunity to represent both at some stage.”

Rabbitohs utility back Dane Gagai.
Rabbitohs utility back Dane Gagai. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Gagai hopes to play against the Kiwis for the first time in the trans-Tasman Test in Auckland on October 13 and he also plans to take his mother home to New Zealand during the off-season.

“We have got a lot of family up towards Hamilton and our marae is at Rotorua so to take mum back there is something me and my partner wanted to do for Mother’s Day,” he said.

“I think it has been six years since she has been back there so for her that is too long”.

However, before then his focus is on helping the Rabbitohs finish as high as they can on the Telstra Premiership ladder ahead of the NRL finals, with the minor premiership their aim if they can beat Canberra and Wests Tigers in the last two rounds.

Gagai, who has been playing fullback in the absence of the injured Alex Johnston, said the Rabbitohs were hoping captain Greg Inglis would return against the Raiders after seven weeks out with a broken thumb.

“We hope to be at full strength for the finals but we don’t want to rush anyone back too early,” he said.

“We want them to come back 100 per cent.”