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Remembering Cathy Friend, a rugby league pioneer

Cathy Friend (née Bell) was one of a kind, a pioneer born into rugby league and devoted to the game and its community to the nth degree for most of her lifetime.

Known by many as Bub, the grand lady of the Auckland rugby league scene passed away at the age of 87 on Tuesday and was farewelled today, fittingly at the Otahuhu Rugby League Club, one of two clubs which loomed large throughout her life.

The other was the Manukau Magpies, a club which has both sides of her family stamped all over it, not least through her son Clayton, one the Kiwis’ greatest halfbacks, and her much-decorated nephew Dean Bell, who not only led the Kiwis and Wigan during his legendary career but was also the Auckland Warriors’ foundation captain in 1995.

Cathy Friend’s brother Cameron forged a wonderful career in the game, especially in his coaching days when he shaped Manukau into a real force on the Auckland scene before coaching the Auckland representative side to famous victories over Great Britain (1988) and Australia (1989).

At a time when the name Bell was everywhere in Manukau sides, another of Cathy’s brothers, the late Ian, was a Kiwi international in 1978 and 1983 while her father George was also heavily involved in the game.

In more modern times, the Bell rugby league gene has been carried on through Cathy Friend’s family, notably so via son Clayton and his wife Joanne (whose father was the late Joe Gwynne, another celebrated coach). Their three sons each have strong rugby league links and have all had a connection with the Vodafone Warriors at one time or another. Jethro played for the club’s under-20 NYC and New South Wales Cup sides – and is still playing for the Howick Hornets in the Auckland competition – while Jordan worked in the recruitment and development area for a number of years and Bodie is a long-time member of the communications team.

One of 12 siblings, Cathy Friend could scarcely escape having such a long association with the game and would emerge as one of rugby league’s most exceptional volunteers over more than 60 years.

Her willingness to serve and contribute began as a teenager with the now-defunct Greenlane club before it was amalgamated with Manukau. She was on Manukau’s committee for close to 20 years and then spent 15 years with Otahuhu.

Friend would soon enough shoulder her way through to the top table in Auckland rugby league administration when she was elected on the ARL board, a position she held for more than 25 years.

A singular highlight revolved around the 2000 Rugby World Cup when she was the driving force behind the New Zealand Māori gaining the right to participate in the tournament. That would see her named the Māori sports administrator of year.

She was duly and deservedly acknowledged for her decades-long contribution in multiple ways, including being awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in 2008 for services to rugby league administration. She was the first woman to be made a life member of the New Zealand Rugby League and was also bestowed with life membership by the Auckland Rugby League, the New Zealand Māori Rugby League and the Auckland Māori Rugby League. In 2017 the ARL honoured Friend as its first kaumātua kuia (elder)

In the 1980s, Cathy Friend’s son Clayton, nephew Dean and brother Ian would rise to prominence playing for the Kiwis, the New Zealand Māori and Auckland.

One day in 1982 would prove to be one of the highlights of her life, but one tinged with disappointment as well.

Back then the NZRL held a trial to select the Kiwis. On this occasion the trial was, unusually, played at the Ellerslie Domain, home of the Ellerslie Eagles.

Among the crowd were Cathy Friend and Lucy McGahan, hoping their sons Clayton, who was then 18, and Hugh (20) would do enough to be selected for the Kiwis for the first time for their coming tour to Australia and Papua New Guinea. Also playing in the trial were Dean Bell, then 20, and Dean and Clayton’s uncle Ian.

Later in the clubrooms Cathy and Lucy were overjoyed – and imbibed suitably to celebrate – as their sons were named among the new faces but there was disappointment, too, for Cathy that her brother and nephew weren’t picked when on form both warranted selection.

It transpired that coach Cec Mountford had decreed that neither would be selected. While the players were in camp uncle Ian had taken his two nephews out; they returned at a respectable hour but it was after the curfew imposed by Mountford. The two Bells were ruled out of contention but Friend escaped such a sanction.

Cathy, while thrilled with Clayton’s selection, was none too pleased her brother and nephew had been punished but she would derive enormous pride from Clayton’s deeds with the Kiwis and then Dean’s when he made the Kiwis for the first time the following year to launch his exceptional career.

In later years the stoic Bub/Aunty Bub/Nana Bub overcame health setbacks to continue contributing, always taking an interest in those around her, be they family, friends or acquaintances.

For Cathy Friend, life wasn’t just rugby league but it wasn’t far off it either. The game is indebted to her for her contribution and her time.

The Vodafone Warriors pass on their heartfelt sympathy to Cathy’s family and fiends.