GARY CLARKE TAKES OVER CRL PRESIDENT ROLE
The recent Canterbury Rugby League AGM saw Gary Clarke installed as the new CRL President, taking over the esteemed role following Gary Baxter’s two-year term.
Clarke, who enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a player, coach and selector in the local club scene, and at representative level for Canterbury, South Island and New Zealand, has also been a generous sponsor of rugby league in Canterbury through his business, Gary Clarke Plastics.
“I’m honoured to get that position, it’s very pleasing,” a humbled Clarke said.
“I started playing when I was five years old and I’m 76 now, so I’ve been involved for a few years alright.
“I’m still a passionate supporter of the game here and I still keep in touch with a lot of the old league guys. That’s been most of my life.”
A halfback or five-eighth, Clarke won premierships with Linwood (1963) and Papanui (1971-72), the latter as player-coach. He later coached Sydenham to a Grand Final in 1978.
A former Kiwi Schoolboys rep, Clarke made 30 appearances for Canterbury from 1963-71, and captained South Island against Australia in 1969. He made three Test appearances for New Zealand, coming off the bench against the 1966 Great Britain tourists, and playing against France and Australia during the 1968 World Cup.
Clarke was also coach of Canterbury in 1975, guiding the province to a historic victory over Auckland – their maiden success at Carlaw Park.
A long-serving selector for Canterbury and South Island/Southern Zone sides, Clarke was also a New Zealand Test selector in 1983-84.
He has run Gary Clarke Plastics for the past 34 years, and boasts what surely ranks as one of the biggest and most extraordinary collections of Rugby League memorabilia in New Zealand. He has dozens of framed jerseys, blazers, caps, team photos, newspaper articles and other rare pieces – including referee Earl Pilcher’s whistle from South Island’s famous win over Australia at Addington Showgrounds in 1980.
Clarke received wider recognition in 2015 when he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to sport and philanthropy.
Revisit our CRL Legend Series interview with Gary from 2015:
Are you Canterbury born and bred?
Yes I am, I’ve lived here my entire life. I started playing League when I was a five-year-old, for Linwood. Most of the players came from Ryan Street, where we lived. My dad actually came from Belfast, Northern Ireland, when he was a three-year-old – I think it was 1914 when he came out (to New Zealand) during the war.
My grandfather came out here first, got things sorted out and settled in, and my grandmother came out after that. (My dad) and his older brother played League for Sydenham; in fact, I’ve still got all of the old photographs from the 1930s when he was club captain, and coached the club
I was born in 1942, and I’ve got three brothers who all played League. Jim, who was a Kiwi Schoolboys vice-captain; my older brother Ron, who passed away, played for South Island when he was 18; and Rex played Rugby (Union) and League, and played for the South Island Schoolboys too.
You were a Kiwi Schoolboys rep – were there any notable players you played with and against?
One player I later played with in the Kiwis (Test team) was Roger Bailey, he was in the Auckland team and made the Kiwis; that was in 1956. The Canterbury (Schoolboys) beat Auckland for the first time that year, over on the West Coast in Blackball. Another good friend of mine, Jim Fisher, he was the captain of that team.
Where did you start your senior club career?
I started with Christchurch, which is what the club was called then; it later changed to Eastern Suburbs. I started playing premier football when I was 17. I played for Christchurch for about three seasons, then went to Linwood in 1963 and we won a championship. My brother Ron started coaching Papanui in ’64 and talked me into playing for them. So I went and played for ‘Pap’ and I ended up as player-coach at the club, when we won a couple of premierships (1971-72). I retired from playing when I was 29.
Then I got an offer to coach Sydenham. They were in a relegation round, so I took on Sydenham for two seasons (1977-78) and we won the Gore Cup and then made the Grand Final, where we played my old club, Papanui, and lost 8-5.
The early days playing in the Canterbury club competition must have been pretty rough-and-tumble?
Yes it was, but it was good times. A few players I played against like Mel Cooke, he was my captain when I played for Canterbury, he was a tough man. But as I said, I played with and against a lot of good guys, and made a lot of good friends – friends you have for the rest of your life.
You debuted for Canterbury in 1963, how did you enjoy travelling around the country as part of a touring rep team?
In those days we played against the likes of West Coast, Wellington, Auckland, and it was great. But you’d fly up in the morning, and then home later that day after the game. There was one time I took Canterbury up there (as coach) and we beat Auckland, that was ’75, and we went up the day before and stayed the night. Great times.
It must have been a big thrill getting that call-up for the Kiwis in 1966?
Yeah it was. I was a reserve for both Tests (against Great Britain); I was a reserve for the first Test and didn’t get a game, and then in the first five or 10 minutes of the second game Roger Bailey got hurt. He was playing in the centres, so I went out to stand-off. Graeme Farrar was the halfback and captain. Very, very enjoyable, and as I was always told by my father, take the opportunities, and if you turn it on they can’t drop you. I think I went reasonably well, I was mentioned in the paper for having a good game.
During the game do you remember tangling with (legendary Great Britain halfback) Tommy Bishop at all?
I actually had a bit of a go with him when I played for Canterbury (against Great Britain). He was a pretty volatile character! There was a few punches I think when I played against him for Canterbury.
You also represented New Zealand in the 1968 World Cup – against France at Carlaw Park and Australia at Lang Park – that must have been a huge moment for you, pulling on the No.7 jersey, particularly against (St George great) Billy Smith?
Yeah it was. We won the first half against Australia, we were in front but we ended up losing (31-12). One of my Papanui mates, (centre) Spencer Dunn, scored a try, and another Papanui player was (captain and five-eighth) Jim Bond – there was three of us in the side that day. I’ve still got the jerseys here on the wall.
What are your recollections of captaining South Island against Australia in 1969?
I got flattened actually, by Graeme Langlands. I chased through and took the ball off him, and he went ‘bang, bang’, and I was down. I can remember asking Bobby Irvine, ‘who are we playing?’. You played on in those days, which was silly, but I came to and played the whole game. I think I was a bit lightheaded for a couple of days. There was only a few points separating us, we didn’t go too bad.
Obviously the Australian players came over with big reputations, especially from the great St George and South Sydney teams of that era, did you think much about that before playing them?
No, it was just another game. Out there to win and give it your best.
How would you describe yourself as a player and a halfback?
Well, I don’t know. You were always learning; I was told, ‘if you don’t listen, you won’t learn’. But all I know is, not many got past me anyway. Tackling – I could only go around the ankles! I was just your average player. I scored a few tries, which was always a halfback’s job, close to the line, working with your loose-forward and five-eighth, or on the blindside.
The halfback role has changed quite a bit from your day…
Yeah, we had to put the ball in the scrum in the middle! There wasn’t so much of the (game management) stuff, and it was tough. When I started out you would have control of the ball under the old (unlimited tackle) rules. Then it changed while I was playing (to four tackles in 1967 and six tackles in ’71).
You never kicked the ball when you had possession (during the unlimited tackle era), but then you had to learn to put a wee kick or chip through. So I went from being a player that wasn’t allowed to kick, to having to learn to do an up-and-under, or chip through – with the old, wet leather ball. (During the four-tackle era) you didn’t have the ball for too long, and you had to do something with it.
A lot of New Zealand players went overseas, to Sydney clubs and New South Wales country clubs – was there ever a temptation, or any offers, to head over there or Britain to pursue League?
I think I did have someone phone me one time about playing in Australia, if I was interested – which I wasn’t – and also in the UK I got a letter from some club. So I have had the odd offer, but no, I’m a stay-home sort of person.
Winning those premierships as a player-coach with Papanui must have been a highlight?
It was. I think we won the Thacker Shield too, we went over to the West Coast and won that too. So we were the top South Island team.
What were those Thacker Shield games like in those days?
It was tough, always strong teams over on the Coast. And of course you played at Wingham Park, which was mud, always raining. It was good, Coast were always strong back in those days. It was always hard going over there with your club and Canterbury.
How did your appointment to the Canterbury coaching job come about?
I think they asked for coaches, I put my name forward and I got it. That was in ’75. Canterbury hadn’t done that good over the years, and I brought in a lot of young players – and a couple of oldies – and we went through unbeaten. It was a Rothmans tournament, so you played Wellington, West Coast, Waikato and then Auckland. We played Auckland up at Carlaw Park, and we won 15-14. So it was very close, but we won and we all got a medal each.
That allowed us to go into the AMCO Cup knockout in Australia the following season. I think I asked for some money – about the same amount that the players were getting – and they ummed and ahhed, and they didn’t come back to me, so I didn’t coach them to the AMCO Cup. Jim Fisher took them over instead.
And you had a couple of years as a New Zealand selector for Graham Lowe’s Kiwi team (1983-84). How satisfying was it to see the team you picked beat Australia for the first time in 12 years?
It was great, that was at Lang Park (in ’83). I didn’t get to go over, I watched that on telly. But it was great working with Graham Lowe. In fact, I was talking to him at the (Kiwis Long Luncheon) and I said, ‘I remember you picking me up from the airport and going to your place for breakfast, and I remember your daughters were about seven or eight’. He said, ‘yeah, they’re 40-something now and I’m a granddad’.
You gave a few young guys their first shot at Test level that year like Dean Bell and Joe Ropati. When you came into that selector role, was there a discussion that you would try and inject some new players and change the team up?
Graham was always in favour of bringing in the younger ones. I used to pick my team – I wouldn’t show the others – and then we’d listen to the coach, and most of the time the teams were the same as I would’ve picked if I was coaching. You always gave the benefit of the doubt to the coach with selections, because it was his head on the block. It was very enjoyable working with Graham Lowe and the rest of them like Bill Sorensen and Bill O’Callaghan.
Did you get the sense then, and especially after sweeping Great Britain 3-nil in ’84, that it was the dawn of a new era for the Kiwis, given those years probably set a bit of a platform for the success they’re having now?
Well, I hope we have (set that platform) a little bit.
And it would have been great seeing some of the old faces at the Kiwis Long Luncheon in Auckland last week?
It was great seeing everyone – we’ve all had our hair dyed white, or shaved it off! But it was great what (Sir) Peter (Leitch) had done and we had a great time. And I was sitting up the front with (Warriors CEO) Jim Doyle, (NRL CEO) Dave Smith, (NZRL CEO) Phil Holden, Martin Devlin and Mike King.
Away from League, what has kept you occupied over all these years?
Back in the days playing and coaching Papanui, it was back to work on Monday – you never had time off work. I left school when I was 15 and got a job with a plastics firm for a joker named Harry Irwin, who was the founder. I worked for him, and then it was taken over by Sir Robertson Stewart, (who renamed it) PDL. So in 28 years working in plastics, I learnt every department; I was in charge of the plastics department when I was 18 and I left there to work for myself, and I’m still working at 73. I started working for myself 34 years ago, bought up these old moulding machines that they said they had no work for, and bought the whole plant. So I set them up and we’re still busy.
But I’ve met a lot of people over the years and sport’s helped me out a lot, with friendship and that sort of thing.
Are you still involved in Rugby League?
I was made a life member of Canterbury Rugby League, and I’ve been involved – that jersey over there (Canterbury Bulls) for the 100 years has got my name (Gary Clarke Plastics) on the sleeve. I’m always helping some club out, donating drink bottles and that sort of thing for the kids – I like doing things for the kids’ teams. I’ve got that many thank you letters and I’ve kept them all. I’ll probably wallpaper this room with them.
Being a former Kiwi, is there a sense of pride in seeing how well the Test team has done recently?
The last couple of years has been brilliant, hasn’t it? And they’re not just winning by one or two points, are they? Come on New Zealand!
What inspired you to collect and display the amazing collection of League memorabilia you’ve got here?
Well I had my own stuff from over the years in the garage at home. Jerseys and stuff, and then other things from when my father was coaching at Sydenham, and my brothers with their photos. At our last place (prior to the earthquakes) I had a little private bar up the top, I started to display it up there and I ran out of room, so I moved a few machines out and put it all down at the factory. Peter (Leitch) has sent down a lot a good stuff over the years, and it’s just gone on and on and on, and this is what’s happened. It’s very enjoyable, and I get people that walk in here that have come through the factory and they see it and say, ‘wow, what the hell’s this?’. People are blown away by it and that gives you a bit of a (buzz).
Have a lot of your former teammates donated items for you to put on display?
Yes, I’ve got blazers from Lory Blanchard from when he played for New Zealand and when he coached New Zealand, and also blazers from Mel Cooke and Johnny Bond. And a guy out at Kaiapoi had a lot stuff and didn’t want to continue with it so he gave it to me. There was some things that belonged to (New Zealand Team of the Century five-eighth) George Menzies, a telegram and a card from his mother when he was playing for the Kiwis in the UK and even a certificate of his wife’s from when she came out of nursing. So I wrapped it all up and took it over to him, went to Runanga, knocked on his door – I knew him, him and I had been selectors together for South Island – and I gave it to him, and tears came to his eyes.
Probably Lory’s blazers (hold pride of place), and my own World Cup blazer from ’68. But it’s nice to come in here at four o’clock with a glass of beer in your hand and reminisce.