CRL Legend Series No.5: Ray Haffenden

CRL Legend Series No.5: Ray Haffenden

Linwood, Canterbury and New Zealand Rugby League icon Ray Haffenden was recognised in last week’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby league.

A long-serving fullback for Linwood and Canterbury, Ray went on to make an enormous impact as a coach, manager and administrator.

He coached Canterbury for six seasons during the 1980s, had a successful stint as Junior Kiwis coach, and manged the New Zealand Kiwis under Bob Bailey and Frank Endacott in the 1990s.

A tireless worker for rugby league, Ray – a life member of the Linwood club and New Zealand Rugby League – held many administrative posts, and served as vice-chairman and chairman of the NZRL from 2006-16, helping steer the game’s governing body through a turbulent period.

WILL EVANS caught up with Ray to chart an association with rugby league that has lasted more than half a century.  

WE: How did your rugby league journey get started?

RH: My uncle got me to go down and play for Linwood when I was about eight or nine years old. I made the reps for the Under-10s and went to Greymouth, had a bit of success there as a young bloke and it sort of followed on from there.

You played in Linwood’s premiership-winning teams in 1968 and ’70, a great era in Canterbury club football?

Absolutely, it was a good, hard competition. I played for Linwood for 12 years in the prems, and we had our ups and downs of course, but there was certainly some very strong competition from clubs like Papanui, Hornby, Addington, always good competition against Marist thanks to Bill Whitehead and his mates. And we got good crowds at the grand finals in those days.

Did you play fullback right through your career?

That’s where I was right through the grades – I think I played on the wing for Canterbury at one stage, but for Linwood I probably played in every position except hooker during my career. I enjoyed the forwards as well actually.

Who are some of the characters from those days that stand out in your memories?

I would have to say that ‘Greeny’, John Greengrass, was an exception to the rule. I think he came from Belfast Rugby, but as a league player he played in (17) Test matches which most people probably don’t realise. He was a personality in his own right, and an awesome footballer – amazing speed for a second-rower or prop. Many times he saved my bacon at fullback when he tackled a flying winger, covering across the park – and when he hit them, they stayed hit. He didn’t really like training; he used to duck off to the changing rooms when (coach) John Flanagan made us do our ‘660s’!

We had guys like John Rosanowski who could kick goals from anywhere, and he won us the grand final against Papanui in extra-time (in 1970). I think my mate Gary Clarke, who I spoke to yesterday, put the ball in the scrum crooked and got penalised, which was a bit rough, but ‘Roso’ kicked the goal. It wasn’t till years later he told me he couldn’t see without his glasses, that all he could see was the posts in a blur – but he still kicked the goal from 40 metres out.

Wally Wilson is another one who comes to mind, well known in Canterbury of course, I played with Wally for a number of years. But there’s so many of them that came through the game (during that era) – Paul Truscott, Lester Wilson, Lew Hudson.

But my earliest memories from the point of view of people who have had an influence on the success you have yourself, I couldn’t let it go past without speaking about Jim O’Neill. He was my mentor as a young man and helped me a lot.

What were the highlights of your time playing for Canterbury?

The first game I played was against a Queensland Country side, Jim White was our captain. They had a guy, I think his name was Grimmond – he was a lot like Mocky Brereton, he had high knees when he ran. In the first few minutes he made a break down the wing and I had the job of stopping him, which I think I did, but I can always remember this guy coming towards me with his high knees, looking almost impossible to stop.

We didn’t have a lot of Canterbury games in those days – I don’t have any Canterbury photos, for instance, and I wouldn’t have a clue how many games I played for Canterbury – but the South Island game I played in against Great Britain (in 1974) on the West Coast was a pretty big effort. We got beaten (33-2) but to play against Great Britain was a pretty special time.

Did you ever feel that you were close to breaking into the Kiwis side at any stage?

We used to have camps and trials and that sort of stuff, and I went to most of those. But it was always difficult to break the mould of the Auckland players, they always had a bit of a harder competition in those days, and I had Donny Ladner from the West Coast ahead of me as well so that made things difficult. Then Michael O’Donnell got into the Kiwis side (from Canterbury), which was great. I’m very happy with what we achieved; it was all about family, the team and the club – the club was the centre of your universe in those days because you couldn’t really afford to do a hell of a lot more.

Did you coach Linwood?

Yes, I was a co-coach with John Flanagan – it might have been while I was still playing – and then took over as manager of the team, and coached a few Canterbury rep sides on the way through, Under-19s and the reserve grade side. Then I took over the Canterbury job.

You coached Canterbury in 1982, took a year off and then have another five seasons in charge – obviously there was some pretty memorable times during that era as well?

I was very lucky that I was sent to Australia by the New Zealand Rugby League. I was also the Canterbury Coaching Director, so I had a job coaching the coaches, and I went to a place called Armidale College for a week’s coaching. It started about 7 in the morning and finished about 9 at night, we had kids from the age of 10 to 18, and there were about 60-70 of them and a number of coaches.

So I came back – brainwashed is probably not the right word, but very close to that, on the skills of the game, because the whole week was about skills training. Wayne Bennett was there, Benny Elias, Steve Ella, Wayne Pearce, Greg Alexander, so there was a smattering of players and real ‘supercoaches’ as they turned out to be. It was a real learning curve and a huge thing in my career.

I came back with all these new ideas and we were probably the first people in New Zealand to use tackle bags, for instance. I enjoyed doing that sort of coaching, so the Canterbury team was well-versed in that sort of stuff – skills and drills. At one stage we put them all through the Level 1 coaching course, so it was a learning curve. I found it a real challenge, and if you talk to some of the guys like Wayne Wallace, they’d probably say we were a bit weird in some of the things we did, but it was all about creating the environment for the players to get better.

And you had some of the more memorable players of the 1980s in your side – Phil Bancroft, Wayne Wallace and those guys in your team?

Yes that’s right. Some of them were already Kiwis and some of them went on to become Kiwis. In terms of that the Junior Kiwis team I took to Papua New Guinea probably stands out as one of the highlights of my career. Because of the communication problems they never really got the credit they deserved, but they played six games over there and won every one of them. We had Blair Harding from Canterbury, who’s no longer with us, Jarrod McCracken, Whetu Taewa, Sean Hoppe, Hitro Okesene, Stephen Kearney. And the good thing was because there wasn’t a lot else to do, we trained a lot together, and a lot of those guys became Kiwis and I was fortunate enough to manage the sides that they were in.

You preceded Frank Endacott as coach of Canterbury and the Junior Kiwis, and Frank went on to have a lot of success with both sides – do you like to think you played a bit of a part in that success with your stints as coach before him?

I hope that Frank doesn’t mind me saying that I think the boundaries were set (during my stints as coach) and some platforms were set. I like to think that some of those players learnt from what we taught them.

You managed the Kiwis in 1990-91 under the coaching of Bob Bailey – the win over Australia in Melbourne in ’91 must have been amazing to be a part of?

Absolutely, there’s some very distinct memories. Bobby Fulton was coaching the Australian team, a very high profile person in the game, and he didn’t take the loss very well at all. I went out to the bus and I could see Bobby Fulton, he was ducking in between the cars and leaving the ground but also hiding as he left. As he went past I jumped and the air and went “Yes!” – it’s just something that came over me.

Another story that stands out is before the match I was in the lift at the hotel, nervous as anything, and there was a guy in there. Just to make conversation I said, ‘Are you going to the game tonight?’. He said, ‘I’d love to but I’ve got no tickets.’ He was a Kiwi, so I asked him for his room number, found Bob (Bailey) and got a couple of tickets from him and gave them to reception to slip the tickets under his door.

We came back to the hotel later on to have a couple of drinks – and we never really got to celebrate because we were so busy – but this guy kept on following me around, he was pretty drunk. Bob asked me who this guy was, and I had no idea so I asked him. He said, ‘I’m the guy you gave the tickets to, it’s been the greatest night of my life.’ But it wasn’t the same guy from the lift – they must have gone to another room or there was some mix-up, so the wrong guy got the tickets but he had a great night.

But to be involved in that win stands out in everyone’s memory. The sad thing is we were too busy to celebrate it – we certainly didn’t stay out till 5 in the morning and do dumb things…

And you carried on as Kiwis manager under Frank Endacott?

That’s right, and we’ve been friends ever since. I really enjoyed my time working with him, he’s easy to get on with and the same with Bob Bailey, we knew our boundaries, and being a coach myself – I actually applied for the coaching job when Bob got it.

(Bob and I) are still very good friends, we see each other regularly, and I always have a good time when I’m with Frank – as everybody else does. I was very lucky. The support of other people around me (was great) and Canterbury was so good to me, the board was so supportive, Bevan Olsen as manager and Neville Diggs were so easy to work with that it made life so easy.

What did you get up to between that period as Kiwis manager in the mid-1990s and your term on the NZRL board from the mid-2000s?

I moved to Auckland about 1992, and I was on the New Zealand board in the nineties as well. But we had the Bartercard Cup running in those days, so every Saturday we would do the judiciary for that, so it was quite a busy time. I’ve never been idle, let me put it like that. We’ve built the (New Zealand Rugby League) museum, which took us a few years, and there’s always something to be done.

What memories will you take away from your time in the New Zealand board as vice-chairman and chairman (2006-16)?

The fact that we made a change and the fact that I got the chairmanship was not designed – I wouldn’t say it was by accident, but it wasn’t meant to happen the way it did. I sometimes get criticised for taking over from the previous chairman in untoward circumstances, which is complete rubbish. The previous chairman, Andrew Chalmers, resigned, as did the three independent board members at the time because we weren’t in good shape. That left us in a huge hole.

We had a vote and I was appointed chairman. That was probably the toughest six months of my life, in terms of media, and we had so much to do to get the new board back together. We had a lot of work to do to get people back onto the board and to get the numbers right. We gradually succeeded in doing that, but again only with the help of a number of dedicated people, and a huge amount of heartache. It was tumultuous, quite frankly.

But we got there, and then we had the review from SPARC, and again that was a pretty torrid time for New Zealand Rugby League and all those involved. We were cut out from any sponsorship and funding from poker machine (revenue), so that was tough. It’s history now, but it was tough at the time, I can tell you.

Were you able to enjoy some of the success – on and off the field – that the Kiwis and New Zealand Rugby League had during this difficult period?

We got ourselves ahead, but the reason that we were able to survive was that the Australian (Rugby League) chairman Colin Love – and to me he was one of the most respected and revered guys in the world in rugby league – phoned me up and said, ‘They tell me you’re not a bad sort of a bloke. I hear you’re in a bit of trouble, what do you need?’

I said, ‘Money’. He said he’d be over after Christmas with Geoff Carr and we’ll meet. So the ARL gave us money to keep us afloat. We had a Test match coming up that year, so they gave us money from that ahead of time, and that was the only thing that saved us. If we hadn’t have got that we probably would have ended up selling our property; but for the Australians we would have been in deep strife.

We formed a really close relationship with those guys from that point on, and I worked on the International board when Colin was there, and we had a really good relationship. I still talk to him very regularly. They came to our (aid), and that should never be forgotten.

You’ve been living in Auckland for 25 years now…do you still consider yourself a Cantabrian?

You know the old saying – you can take the boy out of Canterbury, but you can’t take Canterbury out of the boy. I try to follow them as much as I can, I went to watch the ladies play (in the Women’s National Tournament) and I was very pleased to see some of them make the Kiwi Ferns team. And it’s always pretty special when I go home.

Your life memberships with Linwood must mean a lot to you?

I came down for the 100th anniversary a few years back, and I was a guest speaker. That was really fantastic, and I wore my badge for the first time.

Canterbury Rugby League has endured some tough times over the last 20 years – particularly after the earthquakes – what’s your view on how the code is shaping up down here?

I would be remiss to say that I knew exactly what was going on, but I can see from afar that there’s some progress. I know it’s extremely difficult with the way rugby union is so strong, and I was present the day the Showgrounds were given over to the (Canterbury) Rugby Union. I was always hopeful that one day they’d give it back, and I still am. I’m not sure of the politics of what’s happening at the moment, but I think they’ve got some good people there that are trying their very best to make things happen.

And it must be satisfying to see Christchurch host a couple of World Cup games this year?

Absolutely. Naturally all of us that played at the Showgrounds have got a very special memory of it because that’s where we played most of our football. Very rarely did we play anywhere else. It was a special place to be with the Linwood ladies running the canteen and Bill Whitehead on the microphone, everybody dressed up. Great times.

Read our previous CRL Legend Series features on Shane EndacottGary ClarkeJohn Coffey and Frank Endacott

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