The New Zealand Rugby League community is saddened to learn of the passing of former NZRL chairman Gerald Ryan, aged 87.

One of the most colourful officials to have served the game in this country, Gerald’s 1997-2001 tenure as chairman – which encompassed a challenging and tumultuous period in rugby league’s history – was rarely anything less than entertaining.

Prior to becoming NZRL chairman, Gerald had terms as chairman of Auckland Rugby League and the Auckland Warriors, vice-president of NZRL and patron of NZ Universities Rugby League. When Gerald took over as NZRL chairman, former Prime Minister David Lange was his deputy.

Gerald Ryan and twin Kevin were born in Westport in 1931. Theirs was to be a difficult childhood because their mother Gladys died only two years later. Father Timothy was left to raise a family of nine, eight of them boys. They moved to Hamilton and Gerald and Kevin went on to study law and flourish in the legal profession (Kevin eventually became a Queen’s Counsel before passing away in 2008).

While Kevin Ryan famously wrote in his autobiography that for all his legal career he had fought for “the rights of the innocent, the not so innocent and the downright guilty”, Gerald was to fight New Zealand’s corner for equality against powerful Australian and, to a lesser extent, British administrators in the court of international rugby league.

On one occasion, as NZRL chairman, he was told his Australian counterpart, Colin Love, would not accept a New Zealand referee to control the Kangaroos and Lions despite neutral officials then being the rule. While the British only mumbled their displeasure Gerald thundered his defence of New Zealand referees from the rooftops.

Gerald was never a great fan of Australian whistle-blowers, whom he believed were doing very little to show impartiality to the Warriors in the late 1990s. “There are orangutans and blind grandmothers from the South Island who could do better than some Australian referees,” said Gerald to any members of the media prepared to listen.

When New Zealand Maori were lobbying the International Board for acceptance into the 2000 World Cup they desperately needed NZRL backing. Although it had been another committee which initially supported them, Gerald knew he was committed: “A promise was given to them and as far as I’m concerned a promise is a promise”.

In 1996 Gerald donated the Billy Kelly Memorial Trophy for what became the Anzac Tests, in recognition of the outstanding player who went from Buller to represent both New Zealand and Australia before being wounded in the First World War and was later a renowned coach in Sydney. Gerald was Billy Kelly’s nephew.

Gerald’s NZRL chairmanship covered the tempestuous Super League war which first ignited across the Tasman, the introduction of the national Bartercard Cup and provincial second division competitions, and the national body’s brief ownership of the Warriors prior to the pivotal sale of the club to Eric Watson.

Gerald’s contribution in many spheres was officially recognised in 2011 when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) “for services to racing, rugby league and the community”.