While the ever-humble Tom Hadfield was never comfortable being remotely near the spotlight he owned a seat among the pantheon of New Zealand rugby league’s all-time greats.
As much has rightly been underlined following his passing at the age of 83 this week and will again be reflected on when he is farewelled on Sunday.
As an outside back of the highest quality, ‘Tommy’ Hadfield was able to express himself in the most extraordinary manner in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who were privileged to play alongside him and against him – or watch him – in that golden era can’t say enough about him.
Nothing captured the essence of Hadfield’s ability more succinctly than the bare statistics of his international career when, as Kiwi No 375, he scored 15 tries in just 17 Tests between 1956 and 1961. It was a record then and stood until the mid-1970s when the great Phil Orchard equalled it. In time the likes of Hugh McGahan, Kevin Iro, Sean Hoppe, Stacey Jones and Nigel Vagana edged past it until Manu Vatuvei set the bar at 22 tries in 28 Tests while Jason Nightingale has also gone past Hadfield’s old mark.
In his playing years and throughout the rest of his life Hadfield was the epitome of humility. His son Mark noted this week that his father rarely related any stories from his career; it simply wasn’t his style.
Putting his inherent shyness aside, ‘Tommy’ was ever the gentleman. It was always a pleasure to catch up with him, especially as a regular attendee at the annual ex-Kiwis reunion. As usual, he was there last October, alas for the final time.
He was the embodiment of the true rugby league man. Proud of representing his country, playing for Auckland, for his beloved Northcote and also Northern Districts (in the days of Auckland’s district scheme).
The accolades came later, many of them, most notably as one of the wings in the New Zealand Rugby League Team of the Century as well as being inducted into the Legends of League.
Hadfield first made the Kiwis for the 1956 tour of Australia, earning his Test debut in the second match of the series. He would go on to play in two World Cups (1957 and 1960) as well as touring Britain and France in 1961. At one stage he had the singular distinction of scoring in nine consecutive Tests (12 tries in total). Plagued by a knee injury which shortened his career, Hadfield amassed 30 tries in his 40 appearances for the Kiwis overall.
Mark Hadfield said his father’s love of the game was sustained to the end.
“As well as the Kiwis and the Northcote Tigers, he absolutely loved the Warriors,” he said.
“He mostly watched them on television but also made an effort to get along to at least a game each season.
“Dad went to each of the club’s grand finals in 2002 and 2011. For the second one he literally went out and bought his air ticket the day after the Warriors had qualified and combined the trip with attending the ex-Kangaroos reunion. He loved it, meeting Mal Meninga and Wally Lewis. He had a photo of them but unfortunately not one of them with him in it!”
Coming through the era when rugby union’s bigotry towards rugby league was at its zenith, Tom Hadfield was very much a victim of the rampant bias that existed.
He played both codes when he was at Northcote College, rugby league for Northcote at club level and union for the school. Such was his ability he made an Auckland schools rugby union team and, as a 15-year-old, was selected for the New Zealand schoolboys in rugby league.
“At Northcote College, Dad wanted to play league rather than union but he was told if he didn’t play for the First XV they’d dig up the playing field and he’d have to plant it in potatoes,” said Mark Hadfield.
“Reluctantly he ended up playing for the First XV and was captain but he played as little as possible.
“He was also offered the chance to be a prefect but turned it down because he would have been required to give up playing league and he wasn’t going to do that.”
No doubt that story and many others will be aired when Bernard Tom Hadfield is farewelled at Romaleigh in Northcote on Sunday (1.30pm).