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BeeGee the inspiration for Rugby World Cup star and Crown lawyer

07 June 2019 - By Craig Stephen

Mike Mika doesn’t come from a family of lawyers but he was inspired in his two quests in life by a legend of rugby who went on to become a top lawyer.

The loosehead prop starred for Otago, Southland and the Highlanders in the 1990s, played for a top English club and featured for Samoa in two Rugby World Cups.

Now, Mr Mika is a partner at Preston Russell Law in the Crown Solicitor office in Invercargill.

He got into law through a famous 1970s All Black, Sir Bryan Williams.

“I think BeeGee was the first Samoan All Black and he was also a lawyer. My parents are both from Samoa and I was born in Wellington and when you see someone like BeeGee who was a role model both on the rugby field and in his chosen profession, that rubs off. I don’t want to sound corny but he was the one person all us Samoan kids aspired to be. I was interested in law anyway so it was an easy decision to make.”

Legal groundbreaker

With no relatives having ever worked in the law – Mum Fou worked in factories and as a cleaner, and Dad Salafai was a carpenter and later Methodist Church Minister – Mike was a groundbreaker.

Mike Mika

“Mum and Dad both came to New Zealand separately in the 1960s, and met in Wellington. Education for me, my two brothers and cousins was of paramount importance to them. It’s the reason many Pacific Islanders migrated to New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s – better opportunities for their families. I was one of the first in our extended families to go to university. Shortly after, four of my cousins from the same family went to law school in Wellington and are practising law here in New Zealand and the UK.

“My interest has always been court work so when I came out of varsity I went to the defence Bar and then came to the Crown about 15-16 years ago. Sports law was obviously always going to be an interest and having knowledge on both sides of the fence, as a player and from a legal standpoint, and basically wanting to make sure that players are aware of their obligations and duties under their contracts.

“Back when rugby went professional in the mid-90s it was very much a grey area and guys were signing things they weren’t aware of and things were catching up with them a wee bit.”

Mike estimates that 65-70% of his work is Crown and government department work and the rest is made up by acting as lawyer for child, immigration law and, not surprisingly given his background, sports law.

He serves on the Judiciary Panel for NZ Rugby, SANZAAR and World Rugby and is involved with the sports agency Roar! where he acts as the contracts manager guiding players into making informed decisions on the contracts they’ve been offered.

Scarfie heaven

Mike began playing rugby at the Otago University club, turning out more than 100 times for them, and after completing his studies played for the Kaikorai club in Dunedin. While playing for University, Mike was spotted by Otago coach Gordon Hunter – who was also responsible for finding university talent such as future All Blacks Jamie Joseph, Marc Ellis, John Timu, Arran Pene and Josh Kronfeld.

“Playing for Otago back then was a lot of fun. Can you imagine a bunch of Scarfies being flown around the country to play rugby and staying in hotels with buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner? It was a great time,” he says.

In 1994 Mike broke an ankle and took a year off. On his return to the Otago team he came to the attention of Samoa, or Western Samoa as it was known at the time. He was soon on the plane to South Africa for a pre-World Cup tour that included a test against the Springboks.

“At that stage Bryan Williams was involved with the Samoa team so it was a bit of a fanboy moment when I met him at the airport” (for his first trip with Manu Samoa).

Back for the 1995 Cup

Mike was soon back at the airport for the 1995 World Cup, also held in South Africa, where he was involved in all the team’s four matches.

Samoa overcame Italy and Argentina to ensure that qualification would not hinge on the final group game against England, which they lost 44-22.

In their quarter-final match on 10 June 1995, the brave Samoans were beaten by the hosts, but were far from disgraced.

“It was an unbelieveable event, particularly as South Africa had just come out of the apartheid regime and isolation as a nation. I had quite a few mates who were with the All Blacks – Marc Ellis, Jamie Joseph, Jeff Wilson, Josh Kronfeld – and after we were knocked out my girlfriend Jane, who is now my wife, and I went to the final at Ellis Park to support the boys.

“It was quite an emotional time, the atmosphere in the stadium was incredible and it was the same in Johannesburg afterwards. We went to a rugby club after the game and there was just sheer joy for the whole country.”

For the inaugural 12-team Super Rugby competition in 1996 Mike made the natural progression to the Highlanders, which brought Southland and Otago together.

At the 1999 Rugby World Cup in England and Wales, Samoa were based in Swansea. They finished second in their group after beating Japan and then the hosts Wales, 38-31, with Mike coming off the bench in the second half, to repeat the feat of the 1991 finals when they also defeated the Welsh.

“Playing at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff against the hosts was quite a moment for us all. We weren’t expected to win that one. The principality wasn’t too happy about that. It has to be up there (as a career highlight).”

Those victories secured a pre-quarter-final repechage match against Scotland (“when you guys were wearing those horrible, ugly orange jerseys”) which was lost 35-20.

Sent to Coventry

That same year Mike accepted a contract with English side Coventry RFC where he stayed for four-and-a-half seasons. There was the offer of a contract for another year in 2003, but Mike and Jane decided to return home. Son Jacob’s appearance came alongside a two-up, two-down flat “which was fine for us, but when Jacob came along it was time for us to grow up and come back to the real world.”

During his time in the Midlands Mike also worked at a solictor’s firm which was one of Coventry RFC’s sponsors, doing “research for criminal and civil partners, a bit of family work and admin of Legal Service Agency (the equivalent of New Zealand Legal Aid) files”.

He already had some legal work up his sleeve before going to Europe, working for the Dunedin firm O’Driscoll and Marks after graduating, and while playing for Southland on a loan spell, at Cruickshank Pride in Invercargill.

“I always wanted to do court work so when we decided to come back Preston Russell were good enough to have a punt on me.” He had a phone interview with Mary-Jane Thomas and another partner Sarah McKenzie and they promptly packed their bags for New Zealand.

Off the rugby tour itinerary

With Coventry being just two stops away on a train from Birmingham International Airport, Mike and his wife had easy access to some of the hotspots of Europe and beyond, so non-rugby trips included Paris, Barcelona, Portugal, Tunisia, Greece and Brussels. During one off-season they took off for two months to the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

“We were backpacking, and when I say backpacking I do mean backpacking! It made quite a change from arriving at an airport with a rugby team and the bus being there to ferry you straight to the hotel and you get the lowdown: ‘here’s the itinerary, you’re going here and there, breakfast is at this time and lunch, etc, etc’.

“We got into Cairo and boy was that a culture shock. But we absolutely loved travelling around those two months experiencing different cultures, the people and their history, it was very different from what we had done before. My personal favourites were Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Nile, the Pyramids, Petra (in Jordan), Gallipoli and Istanbul ... so much beauty and history.”

He and Jane love spending time at their favourite holiday destination Thailand during the southern winters.

“I like classic older kiwi music like Che Fu, King Kapisi, Aardijah, Nesian Mystik, Cydel, Adeaze ... all the New Zealand music everyone knows,” he says without sounding remotely serious.

Last updated on the 13th June 2019