Diminutive half Keith Roberts played 13 Tests among 35 matches for New Zealand from 1955-60, while also representing Canterbury and South Island regularly with distinction. His international highlights included tries in his first two Test appearances against Great Britain on the 1955-56 Kiwis tour, a key role in New Zealand’s drawn series with the celebrated 1958 Lions tourists, and the Kiwis’ 28-12 victory over Australia at the SCG in 1959.
Roberts, who called time on his international career after the 1960 World Cup, formed an outstanding halves combination with New Zealand Team of the Century five-eighth and West Coast legend George Menzies, pairing up in 11 Tests. He was also part of the Canterbury side that toppled France in 1955.
A rugby union convert, Roberts was a revered figure on the Christchurch club scene, firstly with Marist and then for Papanui, helping steer the Tigers to championships in 1957 and 1959-60 (the latter shared with Linwood).
Earning his maiden Kiwis call-up for the 1955-56 trip to Britain and France, Roberts debuted at halfback in the second-Test loss at Bradford and held his place for the third-Test win at Leeds – dotting down in both – and filled in on the wing in the third Test against France for the injury-ravaged tourists (Roberts was not fit to play, but he was the least worse off of the squad’s injured brigade). He scored another three tries in 11 other tour matches. Roberts toured Australia with the Kiwis in 1956 but was ousted by Auckland’s Sel Belsham for the No.7 jersey in the Tests.
Receiving a Test recall to face the 1958 Great Britain Lions on home soil, Roberts featured in both matches of the drawn series and bagged another try in the second-Test defeat at Carlaw.
That began a run of 11 consecutive Test appearances for Roberts, featuring in all three clashes with Australia in Australia in 1959, both encounters with France at home in 1960, and all three of the Kiwis’ matches at the 1960 World Cup in England.
Roberts turned his hand to coaching, and in 1962, at the age of 30, he guided Canterbury to its first win over Auckland in 37 years as the provincial side secured the hallowed Rugby League Cup.
After a stint captain-coaching NSW country club Batlow, Roberts returned to Christchurch and dedicated many years to coaching and selecting New Zealand schoolboys and Canterbury senior and junior teams – including coaching Canterbury Under-15s to win national tournaments in 1974, ’75 and ’76.
Roberts’ expertise and service was recognised by his elevation to the Kiwis selection panel from 1987 to 1993, which concluded a 40-year association with Rugby League in which he made an overwhelmingly positive impact on a sport he adopted as a 21-year-old with an ambition to prove he was not too small to make it to the top.
Roberts passed away in 2015, aged 83, recognised as one of Canterbury’s finest rugby league servants.
NEW ZEALAND (1955-60)
13 Tests – 3 tries (9 points)
22 tour matches – 11 tries (33 points)
-1955-56 Kiwis tour of Great Britain and France
-1956 Kiwis tour of Australia
-1959 Kiwis tour of Australia
-1960 World Cup