The New Zealand Rugby League community is mourning the loss of Kiwi #568 Gerard Stokes, a Canterbury stalwart on and off the field, and one of New Zealand’s most prominent coaches of the past 30 years. He died aged 65 after battling brain cancer.
Stokes leaves behind an enormous rugby league legacy that included playing and coaching stints on the New Zealand and British club scenes, and with numerous representative teams on our shores.
The son of Jim Stokes, a West Coast and Canterbury forward, Marist-Western Suburbs product Gerard showed early promise as a tough front-rower. He represented New Zealand at schoolboy and age-group level and played for Canterbury B at just 17.
Stokes broke into the senior Canterbury team in 1980. By now with Eastern Suburbs, he used a strong showing for South Island as a springboard to selection in the 1982 Kiwis squad to tour Australia and Papua New Guinea, featuring in four matches.
Stokes spent the 1982-83 northern winter with Workington Town, but not before the start a story that has since passed into rugby league folklore and illustrates his rare toughness unfolded. Stokes dislocated then broke his finger after it became caught in Wellington enforcer and Kiwis teammate Kevin Tamati’s shorts during a rep match. Leaving for England soon afterwards, Stokes played with painkilling injections and the injured finger strapped up all season, then had the digit amputated upon his return to New Zealand at the same time as having minor knee surgery.
The veteran forward returned to Marist-Western Suburbs in 1986. He then turned his hand to coaching, leading the Saints to a grand final – a loss to Halswell – as player-coach in 1988.
A stint in charge of the Hornets garnered grand final success in 1993, before Stokes took the reins of the Canterbury Country Cardinals in the Lion Red Cup. He led the Cardinals to the playoffs in the competition’s inaugural 1994 season.
Stokes became Canterbury coach in 1997, the beginning of a five-season tenure that reached a crescendo in 2000 as the Bulls took out the inaugural Bartercard Cup title. Other representative appointments during the late-1990s included the New Zealand Nines and New Zealand Residents teams.
He was a Kiwis selector and assistant coach under Gary Freeman and New Zealand A coach in the early-2000s, while he coached Wellington in the 2002 and ’03 Bartercard Cups before returning to Workington Town as head coach – the start of a seven-year stretch as a coach in the Old Dart that ultimately led to Christchurch-born son Ben becoming a superstar all-rounder with the England cricket team.
Stokes left Workington Town for neighbouring archrivals Whitehaven in 2008, coaching the club for three seasons – a period that also saw him coach Serbia’s national team.
Ged and Deb Stokes moved home to Christchurch in 2013. Ged, a carpenter by trade, worked with young offenders at Paparua Prison up until last year.
New Zealand Rugby League offers its sincere condolences to Gerard’s wife Deb, sons James and Ben, his extended family, his many friends, and the ex-teammates and players he coached who were touched by the contribution of one of our game’s great servants.