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Ray Cranch tribute: Wonderful character, thorough gentleman

New Zealand rugby league has lost its oldest surviving Kiwi representative and one of its most enduring personalities with the passing of Ray Cranch at the age of 98.

A wonderful character and thorough gentleman, prop-second rower Cranch (Kiwi #341) toured Great Britain and France with the Kiwis in 1951-52 without being able to break into a Test side which boasted an impressive first-choice pack including Cliff Johnson, Bill McLennan, Frank Mulcare, Charlie McBride and Alister Atkinson.

Of his selection in the Kiwis, he said: “It was one of the greatest things in my life to be chosen to represent New Zealand. Rugby league is the best game in the world. I wouldn’t want to play anything else.”

A Mount Albert stalwart, ‘Cranchy’ fashioned an impressive rugby league career after serving with the New Zealand Army in the Second World War, including fighting in the trenches in battles at Monte Cassino in Italy.

When talking about his war experiences, Cranch, who rose to the rank of lieutenant, said he had a couple of narrow escapes. “I feel lucky to have survived it and to have seen the places I did,” he said.

His memories remained vivid almost to the end, not least one particular moment at Monte Cassino.

“The most embarrassing thing was I was lying in this slit trench with shells bursting all around me and I’m screaming: ‘I’ll be good if I can get out of this, I promise I’ll be good’. So you can imagine the sort of state you’re in,” said Cranch in one interview.

Sport was central to Cranch’s life either side of the war.

Softball and surf life saving figured large. He captained the Auckland softball team and had long links with the Piha Surf Life Saving Club.

It was rugby league, though, which was the dominant force, Cranch rising through the ranks to play for and captain Auckland before being selected for the Kiwis. Later he moved into administration where he gave his time selflessly filling a raft of roles including managing the New Zealand Colts in Australia in 1973 while he was also an Auckland selector and team manager.

For more than 20 years Cranch was an ever-popular host as secretary-manager of the Auckland Leagues Club in Parnell. He also served as the club’s president and was made a life member.

Life memberships were awarded by both the Auckland Rugby League and the New Zealand Rugby League while he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 2006 for his services to sport, principally rugby league.

Last year the Auckland Rugby League announced its Premier 2nd competition would be named the Ray Cranch Cup.

“You don’t start out trying to be idolised or eulogised or anything like that. All you try to do is to do your best and I feel like I’ve always done my best. Words fail me,” he said on being recognised with the Ray Cranch Cup.

His love of the game never wavered. He was an avid watcher of the game, his room at the Sir Edmund Hillary Retirement Village adorned with rugby league memorabilia including a Vodafone Warriors flag hanging on his door.

Annual Ex-Kiwis’ reunions will never be the same. ‘Cranchy’ was a regular attendee and this year’s event was set to feature a special tribute to him.

He always had a twinkle in his eye, a ready smile and a warm heart. He’ll always be fondly remembered as a rugby league man who played and lived the game to the hilt. Farewell Cranchy.