26 June, 2023


Congratulations to the following who received Life Member and Distinguished Services Awards at the 2023 NZRL AGM.


Christine Rewa Panapa – Life Member


Christine Panapa has been instrumental in the women’s game here in NZ, having served as the first NZ Women’s Rugby League president and assisted in forming the first Kiwi Ferns team in 1994.

During a time when women sports received little to no funding, Panapa raised funds through raffles to support the Kiwi Ferns with both their national and international tournaments. Panapa recalls that it was a battle she wanted to fight for the girls and their fabulous display of rugby league, which many people didn’t want to support at the time.

Although most quickly think that the Australian Jillaroos have set the benchmark in women’s rugby league, many tend to forget that the Kiwi Ferns dominated the rugby league world throughout their history, which can be credited to the groundwork and dedication that Panapa put in over the years.

Christine Panapa and her vision over an 18-year period have helped lead the Kiwi Ferns to success, achieve monumental feats and forge a path for wahine in rugby league.


William McEntee (Bill) – Life Member


William McEntee, known to many as Bill, has been one of Counties Manukau rugby league’s longest servants, dating back to 1979. McEntee played a pivotal role in organising and managing countless Counties Manukau representative teams, having a cup named after him – the McEntee Cup, played for between Counties Manukau and Waikato representative teams in annual fixtures.

Bill’s passion for the game extends far beyond Counties Manukau, having served on the NZRL Board twice, ensuring that the grassroots game was nurtured and continually developed in the modern-day era of professional sport. Although Bill is officially retired, he continues to serve as the Counties Manukau Zone Chair, is on the NZ Masters of Rugby League Board and is still seen supporting and assisting at clubs on most weekends.


Emile Va’afusuaga – Distinguished Service Award


Having started his rugby league journey in 1968, Emile Va’afusuaga has been involved with four clubs, Papatoetoe Panthers, Mangere East Hawks, Otahuhu Leopards and the Howick Hornets as a player and coach.

Va’afusuaga was appointed to the foundation Board of Counties Manukau Rugby League in 2009 and served until 2016. He joined the CMRL Board as he recognised an opportunity for Counties to become autonomous with rugby league and serve the growing needs of the Māori and Pasifika communities.

He identified that rugby league could help expand education and connect people with learning institutes and careers that best fit individual skill sets. As a MOE Cluster Manager, Va’afusuaga introduced a programme called ‘Leadership through Rugby League’, which was used as a method to identify the learning needs of students, particularly troubled children and how rugby league could be used as a pathway to engage young people and their parents. The programme would provide strategies to shift anti-social behaviours to more productive contributors to learning, in turn creating better rugby league players and better people.

Alongside his outstanding work in schools, Va’afusuaga was instrumental in promoting ‘Playgroups’ in clubs and was a strong advocate of early learning for children and parents. This initiative saw playgroups set up in seven Counties Manukau clubs in which NZRL would adopt the initiative to roll out nationally.


John Gardiner – Distinguished Service Award


John Gardiner’s rugby league journey began at Taranaki Rugby League, where he was one of the most renowned front rowers for an astounding 20 years.

After his playing days, Gardiner would serve the game as a referee, where he would referee premier and provincial football for ten years in and around Taranaki, Wellington, Hawkes Bay, and Manawatu. In addition, Gardiner was responsible for starting the first Taranaki Rugby League Referees’ Association whilst also being on the NZRL Referee’s Directorate for ten years as an assessor.

Gardiner’s service to the game would extend beyond refereeing, becoming a director for the Mid Central Zone board for five years and acting as the Chairperson for the final three years of his tenure from 2019-2022. During his tenure as the Chair of Mid Central Zone, Gardiner was instrumental in overseeing changes made to the local district constitutions that promised the district boards support through district administrators funded and managed by the zone.

As a result, the Mid Central Zones districts, Taranaki, Manawatu and Hawkes Bay, have reaped the benefits of revamped constitutions where the clubs have nominated representatives on each district board.

John Gardiner has been a long servant of the game, paving the way and working towards what is best for rugby league in NZ. His efforts and forward-thinking have put the game in a better place.


Wi Kapua – Distinguished Service Award


Wi Kapua has been a long-serving Wellington Rugby League community member for over 40 years, with his efforts being recognised by having a competition and cup named after him. Kapua’s rugby league journey started at Randwick Rugby League, where he was a player from 1980-1986; he would later become a Wellington School Boys coach from 1988-1993. Kapua is a faithful servant of the game, and it is evident through the life memberships that he has gained from WRL, WRL Schoolboys and Wellington Referees Association.


Bruce Milne – Distinguished Service Award


Bruce Milne commenced his association with rugby league in 1970, playing 11 years at Linwood Rugby League club. The following year after hanging up the boots, Milne transitioned from player to coach. He would go on to coach his Linwood football club before earning a provincial coaching role with the Canterbury Bulls at a development level, helping nurture upcoming South Island talent. He also coached the Canterbury Universities side that would go on to win numerous national titles.

After his coaching career, Milne expanded his resume to managing the Canterbury Bulls for 14 seasons. During his tenure as a manager, Milne enjoyed success, winning two Bartercard Cups and a Universities World Cup title. Additionally, Milne served on the Canterbury Masters Board as the Chairman for 21 years. Milne’s service to the game spans an impressive period, and he has been instrumental in the development of Canterbury Rugby League as we know it today. He continues to be involved in the game and shows no sign of stopping his service to rugby league.