The oldest living Kiwi in history, 98-year-old Raymond James Cranch, a World War II veteran and Auckland rugby league stalwart who became Kiwi #341 when he toured Britain and France with the 1951-52 squad, has sadly passed away. One of the most cherished people in our game, Cranch leaves an enormous legacy. The below article was written by TWL‘s Will Evans for the NZRL Kiwis Association in 2018.
Raymond James Cranch’s New Zealand record – 0 Tests, 1951-52 Kiwis tourist to Great Britain and France – does not stand out among the list of 814 players to have donned the black-and-white jersey.
But the esteem in which Ray Cranch, former Auckland prop/second-rower and Kiwi #341, is held renders him one of rugby league’s most beloved figures in this country.
Cranch, who turned 95 in January, is New Zealand’s oldest surviving Kiwi. And by virtually every account of anyone who knows the genial stalwart, he’d be a guaranteed starter in a hypothetical grand final of the game’s nicest people.
Cutting his teeth in rugby league with the Parnell-based Akarana club as a 13-year-old in 1936, Cranch joined Mt Albert the following season and became one of that club’s greatest servants. After serving in World War II, he helped Mt Albert to Fox Memorial success in 1947 and scored a try against NSWRL grand final winners Balmain in an ‘Australasian’ showdown of club champions.
Cranch became an Auckland representative regular (and captain in 1950), starring in the province’s 1948 win over the Kiwis, who had just returned from a gruelling tour of Britain and France. Three years later he received the opportunity to make a Northern Hemisphere trip of his own, selected in the 1951-52 Kiwis squad.
The presence of indomitable front-row pairing Cliff Johnson and Bill McLennan, crack second-row duo Frank Mulcare and Charlie McBride, and outstanding Canterbury lock Alistair Atkinson kept Cranch out of the Test side – with the quintet playing all five internationals against Great Britain and France – but it was an unforgettable experience nonetheless.
“They were just coming off wartime food rationing, and there was not much good meat around,” Cranch told revered New Zealand journalist, author and historian John Coffey recently.
“Only the team that was playing the next game got the good stuff. The midweek players, the ‘ham and eggers’, got the rest. We played the continuous tackle rule and the English teams would keep the ball for 10, even 20, minutes.”
Mediocre nourishment and dour football notwithstanding, the tour produced the customary off-field shenanigans for Cranch and his teammates.
“I remember Cyril Eastlake and Andy Berryman, with napkins on their heads, doing their doctor and nurse act performing surgery on a banana. It was hilarious,” Cranch recalled.
“Over in France we were travelling down a long narrow road with poplar trees on both sides when (co-manager) Dave Wilkie popped up and asked, ‘Where’s Henry’ (Des White)? He was missing. We had to go another five miles before we could turn the old bus around.
“Going back the other way we met up with a taxi and Whitey hopped out. He had slept in. When he went down to the hotel reception the girl said, ‘Kiwis are gone’. Des didn’t know any French but he managed to get a taxi and set off after us.”
An elbow injury suffered during the French leg cut Cranch’s tour short and provided him with ongoing problems, but he played on until 1954 before hanging up the boots.
Cranch could then begin the next, and most enduring, chapter of his rugby league story, moving into administration. He was made chairman of the Auckland Schoolboys Rugby League board of control in 1960 and manged the first New Zealand Schoolboys team on their tour of Australia four years later. Roles with the ARL senior board of control and as manager of the 1973 New Zealand Colts, again touring Australia, followed for the ever-popular Cranch.
“Mt Albert said they would like to nominate me for the Auckland schoolboy board of control. I felt I should put something back into the game and that’s where it all started,” he said modestly.
An Aucklander and Kiwi through and through, Cranch’s genial nature meant that he wasn’t averse to helping out the ‘enemy’ on the odd occasion.
When the great Australian forward Dick Thornett appeared for Auckland as a guest player in a match against New Zealand in 1969 to mark the NZRL’s diamond jubilee, his boots were ruined after he left them in the Carlaw Park boiler room to dry.
Requiring size 13 boots, Thornett was in a jam until Cranch, who worked in the footwear industry, came to the rescue with a new pair.
Cranch’s selflessness and enthusiasm to take on roles with rugby league is legendary. Secretary-manager for the Auckland Leagues Club for more than 20 years, Cranch later served as president and was made a life member. He was a long-serving selector and manager of Auckland teams, filled gaps on judicial committees and worked with referees.
Away from his first sporting love, Cranch also played softball and was involved with the Piha Surf Life Saving Club.
An Auckland Rugby League life member, Cranch received his NZRL life membership in 2003, and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday honours list.
Ray is still sharp as a tack, is an avid follower of the modern game and, despite his advanced years, still looks capable of putting on solid front-on tackle. Last October he gave a memorable and heartfelt speech at the annual NZRL Ex-Kiwis Association reunion, where the one-in-a-million ‘Cranchy’ was given a lifetime award – along with his great friend Don Hammond – for his contribution to the association over many years.