Two of the highest achievers and most tireless servants in Canterbury Rugby League’s history were bestowed with rare honours at Saturday’s New Zealand Rugby League AGM.

Gary Clarke was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, while Frank Endacott was made a Life Member of the NZRL.

Speaking with both legendary figures about the awards, several common themes shone through: pride, humility, gratitude and friendship.

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, and has served as CRL President since 2018.

“I’m proud, and very thankful for Canterbury Rugby League putting my name forward and for being accepted by New Zealand Rugby League. It’s very much appreciated and an honour,” Clarke says of his Distinguished Service Medal recognition.

“I started playing when I was five years old, so I haven’t missed a season for 73 years – I did go to Woolston Primary School so I can add up!

“I’ve either been playing, coaching, selecting or involved somehow (every year) and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve met a hell of a lot of nice people through the years and they’re friends for 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.

The former NZ Schoolboys rep 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.

Awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to sport and philanthropy, he gave a typically modest reason for his unflagging efforts to help others.

“It’s just my way of life, I just like doing good things. I’ve helped other sports too, but rugby league is my game, of course. I was brought up on rugby league in a rugby league family. I enjoy every minute of it – hopefully I can keep going until I’m 100!”

Gary Clarke’s NZRL Distinguished Service Medals

Endacott’s achievements are part of the fabric of the game. But the former Junior Kiwis rep’s status as one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever coaches – leading Addington and Hornby to CRL premierships, guiding the Junior Kiwis and Canterbury to momentous success, enjoying a record-breaking seven-year tenure as New Zealand Test coach, and embarking on high-profile professional club stints in charge of Auckland Warriors and Wigan – are only part of his NZRL Life Member credentials.

‘Happy Frank’s’ unwavering commitment to the game at grassroots and junior level has been phenomenal, serving on countless committees, coaching junior teams and lending a hand to any cause. In 2020 he has answered yet another call – this time from Northern Bulldogs, joining their premier team’s coaching staff.

Endacott, given a Lifetime Achievement award at the Canterbury Sports Awards in 2017, was taken aback by his latest tribute.

“It came as a complete surprise actually, but I was honoured and privileged to accept it. It’s very nice.

“It’s been 65 years of rugby league – and it’s not finished yet, it’ll go till the day I die I suppose. I’ve coached everything from 10-year-olds to the Kiwis and a lot of teams in between. It’s been a great journey and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

So how does Endacott, now 72 and still boasting a hectic schedule, maintain the drive to give so much to the game?

“You just find the energy. I’ve been a coach, a player, an administrator – the only thing I haven’t done is refereeing. It’s been great. The thing is you meet a lot of great people in sport and rugby league is no exception. When you make a friend in rugby league, they’re normally a friend for life.”

Only a select few are awarded Life Membership by the NZRL – and fewer still from Canterbury have received that recognition. Since Bill Whitehead was made a Life Member in 1988, Lory Blanchard (2008), Ray Haffenden (2013) and John Coffey (2018) are the only Cantabrians to join the exclusive club. Until now.

“There’s not many who get picked for a Life Membership of New Zealand Rugby League and to be one of the chosen few is a real honour. It’s not just for me, it’s for Canterbury Rugby League in general and there’s a lot of people I’ve been associated with on the way that have helped me through the years.

“Obviously my wife (Joan) is one – when things got tough early in the piece, she was always there to kick me up the backside to make sure I was in line. It’s been really great and I still enjoy my rugby league as much as I did when I started as a seven-year-old.”

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