ONCE WERE WARRIORS: AARON WHITTAKER

Aaron Whittaker – Warrior #48

Canterbury great and former New Zealand Test half Aaron Whittaker turned out eight times in first grade for the Warriors, but he arguably holds a more important place in the club’s folklore as a lower-grade captain.

Illawarra (1992): 2 games – 0 points
Warriors (1997-98): 8 games – 1 try, 1 goal (6 points)
PREMIERSHIP TOTAL: 10 games – 1 try, 1 goal (6 points)

Whittaker’s promise was apparent early, winning selection in the New Zealand Schoolboys 15 Years team in 1983. The 21-year-old Halswell playmaker broke into the Canterbury representative side in 1990 and featured in a memorable win over the touring Great Britain Lions.

Further recognition came the following season courtesy of selection in the Kiwi Colts and President’s XIII teams that defeated France, leading to a contract with the burgeoning Illawarra Steelers in the NSWRL premiership for 1992.

The presence of Dale Fritz, Michael Neil and NSW Origin halfback John Simon restricted Whittaker to two first-grade appearances early in the season for the finals-bound Steelers – both off the bench, against ’91 grand finalists Canberra and Penrith – but he partnered Neil in the halves in an 11-10 loss to Great Britain midseason.

Returning to Christchurch in 1993, Whittaker starred in Halswell Hornets’ CRL premiership success and scored seven tries in eight games for Frank Endacott’s all-conquering Canterbury outfit, featuring in a famous 36-12 thrashing of Auckland at Addington Showgrounds.

Whittaker’s performances on the domestic scene saw him leapfrog the likes of Winfield Cup halves Stu Galbraith and Ali Davys for a spot in the Kiwis’ squad to tour Britain and France at the end of ’93.

He played nine matches on tour and was sensationally pitched into the halfback role at the expense of captain and legendary halfback Gary Freeman for the third Test against Great Britain, a 29-10 loss at Headingley.

Freeman returned for the one-off Test in France, but Whittaker’s versatility paid off when he came off the bench in both Tests for the Kiwis – now coached by Endacott – in Papua New Guinea in 1994.

Whittaker was a prolific point-scorer for Canterbury Cardinals in the 1994-95 Lion Red Cup competitions and spent the bridging off-season with English club Wakefield Trinity. He was also named Canterbury Rugby League’s Player of the Year in ’94.

Eager to bring more experienced and level-headed players into the fold, the Auckland Warriors recruited the likes of Whittaker and fellow Cantabrian Shane Endacott for 1996, largely to bolster the club’s reserve grade side and mentor the club’s young up-and-comers.

Again reuniting with coach Frank Endacott, Whittaker skippered the Warriors’ reserve grade side to the 1996 grand final, scoring a try and two goals in a gallant 14-12 loss to Cronulla.

At the end of the year Whittaker captained a New Zealand XIII to a 30-22 upset of the Great Britain tourists, but – as at club level – Warriors halves Gene Ngamu and Stacey Jones blocked his path to a Test recall.

With Endacott taking over the first-grade reins from John Monie midway through 1997, Whittaker made his premiership debut by coming off the bench in a late-season win over Adelaide – his only appearance in the top flight that year. He then led the Warriors to the Super League reserve grand final, where they went down to Canterbury.

An injury to Test hooker Syd Eru during the 1998 NRL season saw Endacott call upon Whittaker again, firstly giving him a run off the bench against Newcastle, then starting him in the No.9 jumper for six straight rounds.

Whittaker kicked a field goal in a 25-14 win over Canberra and scored his maiden first-grade try in a nail-biting 15-14 eclipse of Penrith. But Eru returned a week later and Endacott’s demise as coach at the end of the season effectively ended Whittaker’s Australian premiership career.

He headed back south, however, representing his province again in 1999 and helping Halswell to back-to-back grand final wins in 1999-2000.

Switching to Riccarton, Whittaker smashed all manner of CRL grand final records with a 32-point haul that included five tries in a 54-14 demolition of Linwood. He was the 36-year-old linchpin as the Knights surged to a second title in three years in 2004, cementing his status as a modern Canterbury Rugby League icon.

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