Rugby league has never been short on so-called colourful characters. Former New Zealand Rugby League chairman Gerald Ryan, who passed away last Saturday aged 87, was that and then some.
He was one of eight brothers - including two sets of identical brothers - from a rather remarkable family.
Frank, who died last year aged 84, was a long-time Mount Albert mayor who worked tirelessly for his community and subsequently became even better-known through his daughter, internationally-acclaimed actress Lucy Lawless.
There was also Gerald's twin Kevin, the legendary criminal lawyer, who became a Queen’s Counsel in 1998 and died at the age of 77 in 2008. He appeared in more than 100 murder trials, most famously acting for Arthur Allan Thomas.
Gerald, born in Westport, developed a deep love for rugby league, racing and law. Indeed, in 2011 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to rugby league, racing and the community. He also became a New Zealand Rugby League life member in 2006.
Quirkiness and exuberance were among the traits that stood out in a man who was more than dogged in fighting for New Zealand rugby league’s cause during his term as NZRL chairman from 1997-2001. It could be said he had a tendency to speak his mind first and consider the consequences later, which made for some raised eyebrows, gasps and certainly some juicy quotes for media people.
One of his best quips was given a fresh airing in the obituary published on the NZRL’s website.
Ryan was by no means alone in his dislike for Australians referees and he didn’t miss his target when he directed a verbal volley at them over the bias he perceived in the way they were controlling the Warriors' matches in the late 1990s. He put it this way: “There are orangutans and blind grandmothers from the South Island who could do better than some Australian referees.”
As fate would have it, his chairmanship coincided with troubled times for the game in New Zealand (troubled times and rugby league tend to go together more often than not). Ryan’s challenge was to oversee the code when the Super League-aligned NZRL was at odds with the establishment in the shape of the Australian Rugby League, and then to guide the game out of the troubled waters after the code came back together.
It was also a period when the NZRL had a shareholding in the Warriors, with Ryan serving as chairman of both the Auckland Rugby League and the Auckland Warriors as various stages.
One of his special passions was crusading for the rugby league cause in universities. He had been playing rugby union at club level in Auckland in the 1950s when he became a rebel by switching to rugby league.
As Carey Clements notes on the Facebook page for the New Zealand Universities’ and Tertiary Students’ Rugby League, Ryan was a foundation player in the first Auckland University side in 1957, the first treasurer on the New Zealand Universities’ Rugby League council in 1968 and chairman some years later when the NZURL was reformed after being disbanded
“There was a lot of controversy about switching to league at the time,” he said.
“In fact, when we first turned out we were banned for life but when my brothers played for University (in rugby league), they used different names because they were also playing senior rugby union at the same time.
“We all had assumed names. I think mine was Winston Churchill and my twin brother Kevin used Clark Gable or something like that. Tony and Frank used other names as well. It was also confusing for teams we played for because we were two pairs of identical twins. People always got us confused throughout our lives, off the field as well.”
Ryan’s interest in and dedication to rugby league in universities was rewarded when New Zealand caused a huge upset by winning the University Rugby League World Cup in Brisbane in 2005.
Details of his funeral are yet to be confirmed.