Canterbury Rugby League’s latest Life Membership could hardly have gone to someone more deserving.

Announced as a Life Member at last week’s CRL AGM, Jeff Whittaker has literally spent more than 90 percent of his life ensconced in the local rugby league scene, and has been one of the code’s most dedicated and hardworking servants for the past three decades.

“It’s an honour and a privilege, to be honest – that’s a big part of it,” Whittaker, who is already a Life Member of the Halswell club, said.

“And it’s probably a thank-you to my mum and dad, and to my family, my wife Tracey and my four kids – Cara, Josh, Luke and Steffi – for giving me the time to be able to do what I love doing in rugby league, whether its coaching, administration or being involved with a club.

“I’ve been pretty lucky.”

Whittaker played rugby league for 22 years, progressing through the junior grades and representing Canterbury, South Island and Rest of New Zealand at age-group level.

He toured Australia with Canterbury 19s and won selection for South Island 19s before progressing to the senior club ranks as a foundation player for fledgling Halswell in 1979.

Whittaker played in the club’s 1984-86 grand finals – including its first premiership triumph in ’85 – before hanging up the boots in 1987. He looks back fondly on what is widely considered the heyday of the Canterbury Rugby League club scene.

“I started playing when I was five years old, coming right through the grades,” he said.

“I was probably lucky, I came through in the best time for rugby league (in Canterbury) really, we had big numbers.

“I was fortunate enough to play for Halswell at 19 when they first came into the premiers (in 1979) and we were playing against Kiwis every week: Mark Broadhurst, Wayne Wallace, Adrian Shelford, David Field.

“So every week you were playing against some of the best footballers not only in New Zealand, but probably Australasia.

“When we played in grand finals against Hornby there was probably 10,000 people.”

What should have been a career highlight was bittersweet for Whittaker, however – he suffered a serious injury in Halswell’s gripping 17-16 grand final win over Hornby in 1985.

“It was (a highlight) for the club, but I was laid up in the hospital with a broken ankle,” the 58-year-old lamented.

“So I didn’t get to party, I was getting ready for an operation.

“But it was great for the club, for all the hard work of all the great people in the club right from day one. To see my mum and dad there, and being part of it, it was pretty amazing.”

But the end of Whittaker’s playing days only ramped up his involvement in rugby league. After coaching a string of Halswell junior teams, he was a coach and selector for countless Canterbury and New Zealand age-group rep teams from 1992 until only a few years ago.

His first national appointment was as New Zealand 16s selector and coach in 1996, while he took the NZ Secondary Schools team to Australia in 2000 – coaching a team that featured Canterbury’s Chris Bamford and Rob Tanielu against an Australian side containing future Origin stars Anthony Quinn and Joel Monagahan – and guided NZ 16s to a win over Samoa in 2016.

Whittaker was also a long-serving Canterbury Bulls selector and a tireless administrator for Halswell and Canterbury.

The CRL Coaching and Development Manager from 1997-2003, Whittaker was Halswell’s president from 2004-11 – a tenure that included the NZRL Grassroots Club of the Year honour and the CRL Club President of the Year award in 2010.

Other accolades include the Sport Canterbury Outstanding Exponent of Fair Play in 1997 and Outstanding Winter Sports Administrator in ’98.

Typically, though, Whittaker is humble about his mind-boggling list of achievements.

“I wanted to put something back into the game and coaching at club level, coaching Canterbury and South Island, and then I was fortunate enough to coach New Zealand sides from 1996 through to 2014.

“I loved my seven years as Coaching and Development Manager at Canterbury Rugby League in the late-‘90s, early-2000s.

“So to be involved at the highest level of grassroots rugby league was outstanding and then to go back and be president of Halswell for seven years, get Grassroots Club of the Year – I’ve got a lot of fond memories from rugby league and I’m still very passionate about the game.”

Asked how he found the motivation – let alone the time – to wear so many hats for rugby league’s sake, Whittaker gives an answer that sums up the selfless volunteer mentality of grassroots sport.

“It’s more what you get out of it when you see what can be achieved in the clubs and at Canterbury level, from the Bulls right through,” he said.

“Being involved with the Bulls under Gerard Stokes, Phil Prescott and Dave Perkins, and to be competitive with the best in New Zealand – every year we lost 14 or 15 players who got contracts, went overseas or retired.

“But we still had a nucleus of players coming through for the next year, so that was good.

“But more just watching the young kids play, when you see the seven- and eight-year-olds and seeing how much they love it, how passionate they are about the game.

“And then to still see the likes of the Lewi Browns and the Matty McIlwricks, who have come through local clubs and are now playing in the NRL. You just keep going back to all the players that have played for Canterbury and have played in the clubs here in Christchurch and have gone on to play for New Zealand.

“The good part to me is that these young kids, if they’re committed and dedicated and have got the right attitude, there’s still a pathway to make it in rugby league at a professional level.”

Whittaker, who is still a professional horse trainer, has taken a step back rugby league-wise – comparatively, at least, to his hectic workload of the previous three decades – but he is again pitching in for a key Hornets project.

“They’re looking at rebuilding the clubrooms, so I’ve gone on the subcommittee to help try and make sure the club is here in a hundred years’ time,” he explained.

“Mum and dad were a big part of getting the clubrooms at Halswell up and running, so with a big group of local volunteers, I just felt that I’d like to put a bit of time into making sure that when we’re all gone the club’s still strong and going good.”

And he joined the Canterbury Rugby League Football Committee in 2017, alongside Frank Endacott, Phil Prescott, Gary Smallridge and Russell Bell.

“Hopefully we can get a few things going there – try and support the clubs, being positive and keep the game moving forward, that’s my main goal.”

Canterbury Rugby League wishes to congratulate Jeff on his richly deserved Life Membership and thank him for his enormous and ongoing contribution to the game over many, many years.

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