When any list is compiled of the toughest players New Zealand rugby league has produced, a place should always be reserved for former Kiwi and Auckland second rower Tony Kriletich (Kiwi #459).
Involved in a number of the Kiwis’ greatest moments – above all their unprecedented successes in 1971 – ‘Fats’ Kriletich was farewelled last Thursday after his death at the age of 72 on May 21.
His 22 Test appearances were consecutive from his debut against Australia in the second match of the 1967 series in Brisbane to his last at the same venue and against the same opponents in 1972.
During that era, he was a key performer in the 24-3 win over Australia at Carlaw Park in 1971 and the series wins in Great Britain and France later that year.
Indeed, in the second Test against the Brits in Castleford he produced the defining moment of the campaign. With the Kiwis leading 17-14, replacement wing Bill Benyon was over the line in the final minute and seemingly set to score when Kriletich jolted the ball loose to secure victory and a famous series win, the first by an official New Zealand side on British soil. Kriletich also savoured a Test win over the Kangaroos in 1969.
His Auckland representative career spanned 1965 to 1974 during which time he experienced success against Australia twice – 15-14 in 1969 and by the same score again in 1971 – and also Great Britain in 1974. Those were the days when visiting teams had the dubious pleasure of facing Auckland in their last tour outing just a few days after the final Test against the Kiwis.
In the third Test in 1974, Great Britain had outgunned New Zealand 20-0 on a Carlaw Park surface which was at best a bog. That was on the Saturday (August 10) and the following Tuesday afternoon the tourists were back at the notorious Carlaw Park to face a Neville Denton-coached Auckland side hungry for another international scalp. With more rain falling, the field was in an atrocious state, made to measure for an Auckland pack of Kriletich, Tom Conroy, Don Mann, Peter Gurnick, Josh Liavaa and Barrie Dyer (with Doug Gailey coming on as a replacement for Liavaa). Denton had selected Kriletich at prop and he obliged by helping Auckland to a gritty 11-2 victory.
Along the way the Sacred Heart College-educated Kriletich became a legendary figure for the Marist Saints, playing at premier level for the club from 1963-1974 when he retired. He won Fox Memorial premierships with Marist in 1965 and 1966, the Roope Rooster in 1966 and 1971 and the Stormont Shield in 1965 and 1966. He went on to coach Marist and also had a stint guiding Mount Albert in the mid-1970s.
Last year he was named one of the first six inductees to the Auckland Rugby League Hall of Fame. Among the others were his contemporaries and ex-Kiwi and Auckland team-mates Roger Bailey and Dennis Williams.
Kriletich was renowned for his fitness (coach Lory Blanchard actually put him in charge of the Kiwis’ fitness work on the 1971 tour to Britain and France) while his toughness/hardness could be traced to his vocation, concrete-hard hands honed by hours of toil as a panel beater. Plenty of rugby league people frequented his business in Randolph Street off Upper Queen Street when they needed a vehicle straightened out.
Kriletich is the fifth player to pass away from the famous Kiwi side that beat Great Britain and France in 1971. The others are props Henry Tatana and Doug Gailey, hooker Bill Burgoyne and wing Bob McGuinn. Coach Blanchard and managers Bill O’Callaghan and Jack Williams have also passed away.
'Fats' was a regular at the annual ex-Kiwis’ reunion and was there again last October, making the trip from Clarks Beach where he and wife Sharon had lived for a number of years.