An icon of Halswell Hornets and Canterbury Rugby League, Jeff Whittaker has added to his Life Memberships from those organisations with the ultimate recognition from the game’s national body.

Whittaker was awarded New Zealand Rugby League Life Membership at Saturday’s NZRL AGM, acknowledging his incredible contribution at all levels of the game.

“This is a dream and the pinnacle for everyone in rugby league [but] I accept this award on behalf of everyone,” Whittaker says with typical humility.

“It’s a big, big plus for grassroots rugby league, because that’s where I’ve come from and that’s what I’m all about, really.

“So to be involved with grassroots and then Canterbury and South Island, and then on to New Zealand, it’s been massive. But a journey that I’ve loved every minute of.”

Whittaker epitomises the lifeblood and backbone of grassroots rugby league clubs, continuously involved with Halswell Hornets RLFC from 1965 as a junior player until the present day, encompassing invaluable contributions in roles as a coach, selector, administrator and volunteer – including countless hours dedicated to ensuring the betterment of the club.

The same applies to his commitment and involvement at provincial, district and zone level. His coaching and selector roles at junior to senior level spanning more than 30 years, and administrative positions – overseeing coaching development, referees and whole-of-game – have deservedly seen him become regarded as one of Canterbury’s and South Island’s most hardworking, knowledgeable and respected individuals.

Despite being the last person that would seek recognition, Whittaker’s Life Membership from Canterbury Rugby League bestowed in 2018 was not only a fait accompli, but widely and enthusiastically applauded.

At national level, he was a constant presence as a coach and selector for New Zealand junior and women’s teams for more than 20 years, where his ability to identify and nurture elite talent flourished.

But he deflects credit for his latest achievement to those nearest and dearest to him.

“I’ve got to thank my late mum Alice and dad Merv, for everything they’ve done for me and the way they’ve guided me right through my life,” Whittaker explains.

“But the big thing is this award’s really got to go to my wife. While I’m either at training sessions or being involved at league camps, or away on tour, or at meetings with the administration side of it, when you’ve got a farm and horses and that sort of thing, you need people at home.

“My wife Trace and my four kids, Cara, Josh, Luke and Steffi – without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve been able to achieve. They probably deserve it more than me.

“But as far as New Zealand Rugby League goes, mate, it was just a privilege. And firstly, to be up there to see Kevin Bailey get a Life Membership meant more to me, to be honest. I’ve known him for a long, long time and the work that he’s done for New Zealand Rugby League, he was a big part of me … going with Canterbury to the tournaments at Hopuhopu. Then from there, moving forward into New Zealand appointments, being a selector and a coach and being at Hopuhopu and the elite camps.

“The job that Kevin and the late Richard Bolton did, they were so professional and organised. It made my job that much better and easier, soI really take my hat off to those people that have been there and are doing the job.”

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.

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 and guided NZ 16s to a win over Samoa in 2014.

“It was amazing to see the players come out of there – Wairangi Koopu was part of the first side and every year there were boys that went on to be Junior Kiwis or full Kiwis, or go into the NRL,” he recalls.

“I knew that the development program that New Zealand Rugby League had under Frank [Endacott] and Gary Kemble and those people was always going to work.”

“The last [appointment] was in 2014 … we were the curtain-raiser to the Kiwis in Whangarei, they were playing Samoa, and Stephen Kearney got his senior players in and presented all the 16-year-olds with their jerseys.

“That was a sad day for me because the night before young Luke Tipene had passed away and all the boys in my side knew Luke … to find out the morning of the game that he passed away was the saddest thing that I’ve seen.

“Stephen let the boys go into the sheds after the [Kiwis] had played and he sat down with them and talked to them, they were allowed to have a pizza with their idols and be part of it. It showed the person that Steve Kearney was.”

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.

“Canterbury Rugby League is thrilled with Jeff’s NZRL Life Membership,” CRL CEO Malcolm Humm says.

“Jeff has done so much for our game in the district, from being Development Officer with Canterbury Rugby League through to coaching New Zealand age-group representative teams. However, his major contribution to the sport has to be the volunteer work he has performed with the Halswell Rugby League Club since the early-nineties.

“Jeff has been the mainstay of the Halswell club and deserves accolades for their sustainability, progress and successes over many years.”

Whittaker joins the ranks of current NZRL Life Members to hail from Canterbury or with strong ties to the region, including John Bray (2010), Ray Haffenden (2013), John Coffey (2018), Frank Endacott (2020) and Reon Edwards (2022).

But in summarising the honour, he takes another opportunity to divert attention towards those who keep the game going at local level.

“There’s that many volunteers out there, and like I said in my speech, [the award] was really for all the grassroots [rugby league people] – the boys and the girls and our ladies and our men that play the game and all our coaches, managers and trainers and referees, our administrators, all our supporters – I’m really accepting it on their behalf because it’s such a great game but without all those people there, we wouldn’t have a game,” Whittaker rationalises.

“I am privileged and it’s an honour to get the most prestigious award in your sport. But if a young kid’s smiling after having a game of footy, whether he’s made a tackle or scored a try, that’s where I get my happiness out of really.”


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