Fitting reward for decades of rugby service 20 April 2017


20 April 2017

 Fitting reward for decades of rugby service

You get the feeling it’s pretty difficult to slip one past Ray Hopkinson.

The busy 71-year-old is actively involved in a range of things – from rugby refereeing and administration to singing and sports broadcasting.

But he admits he didn’t have an inkling he was to be made a life member of Taranaki Rugby at the union’s recent annual meeting.

“I was completely blown away – I had no idea. I went to the AGM as the Taranaki Rugby Referees’ Association (TRRA) delegate, as I usually do, and was just sitting there when [chairman] Lindsay Thomson announced there was one nomination for life membership, and my name was called,” Ray recalls.

“Next thing Gaille [Ray’s wife] and my son and daughter [Laine and Jade] came out from around the back of the clubrooms ... they had known about it and had been smuggled in. So here I was in my T-shirt, jeans and sneakers being presented with life membership from the board and management in their TRFU blazers and ties – it was a great shock.

“But I’m very honoured and have had great support over the years from my family and the referees’ association and rugby union,” he says.

It’s no surprise Ray has been made a life member of the Taranaki Rugby Football Union, his list of service is long and stretches back 30 years.

He joined the TRRA in 1987 as a rugby referee and has been on the executive since 1995. In 2003 he became the chairman, took on the presidency in 2007, and continues to hold both positions, while also being involved in various other roles, including sponsorship and referee appointments. Fittingly, he was made a life member of the TRRA in 2013.

He has been the TRRA delegate to Taranaki Rugby since 1997 and has been on either the union’s rugby services or commercial services boards since 1998. For the past two years he has also been on the union’s advisory committee, and over the years has assisted with other Taranaki Rugby events, most recently the 2016 Roller Mills tournament.

While he enjoys refereeing and rugby administration, he also loves talking about it – Ray was the ground announcer at Rugby Park and Yarrow Stadium for 20 years and, for the past six years, has been stalking the sidelines of club rugby, ITM Cup, Super Rugby and the odd test match as the comments man for Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. He also joins Phil Quinney on the Saturday Sports Breakfast on Newstalk ZB each week.

But it may all have been different, had it not been for concussion.

A keen rugby player, cricketer and boxer at school, Ray captained the Highlands Intermediate first XV from fullback, and showed promise for the Star club in his early teens. However, two concussions prematurely ended his playing days.

“The doctor told me if I got another one, that could be it, so I had to give it away,” Ray says.

Sport remained a passion, and it was while he was sideline watching Saturday morning rugby years later that he was asked if he was interested in trying his hand at refereeing. Having enjoyed refereeing basketball he thought he would give it a go.

His first game was a match between his old school Highlands Intermediate and Devon Intermediate, and he slowly worked his way up the ranks, controlling secondary school rugby and then senior club rugby, including senior finals. While administration duties eventually took over, he continues to ref morning grade and midweek schoolboy rugby.

“I love it – mixing with the kids and the parents and passing on my experience to new refs. I’ve always wanted to put time into coaching new refs because it’s important to bring them through.”

A casualty of concussion himself, Ray backs the new Blue Card initiative, which gives referees the authority to take a player off the field if they are showing signs of concussion.

“In my day they would throw a bucket of water over your head and say get on with it. But it’s now vital that we look after players’ safety. We’ve worked really hard to train up the referees to know the signs and will continue to do that.”

Ray’s long involvement has spanned the change from the amateur era to professionalism, and says while the culture has changed and players and referees can now make a good living out of the game, volunteers remain vitally important.

“You’re only as good as the people around you and we have a lot of good people here in the TRRA and the TRFU. I’ve been told by visiting referees that we have one of the best associations in the country, which is a real feather in our cap.”

Throughout the years, sport has been entwined with Ray’s other love – music. He became well known around town in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s as the singer of a number of bands, playing four to five times a week. At the time, he also held down a day job in the food industry, eventually becoming the Taranaki branch manager for Toops grocery and hospitality supplier. He retired in 2010 and is back playing music as part of trio Midlife Crisis, who play at private functions and pubs and restaurants around the district.

Being a frontman, perhaps it’s not surprising Ray has ended up on the end of a microphone at sports events, and as usual, there’s a good story behind it.

“I was standing next to Laurie Denton [the late sports broadcaster], who was doing the ground announcing at a pre-season Taranaki game at Rugby Park. He was called away to the phone and he just handed me the microphone,” Ray laughs. “I must have done alright because the next day I was asked if I would like to carry on, and from there I ended up announcing at Rugby Park and a couple of years at Yarrow Stadium, and courtside at basketball games and also hockey test matches.”

Although Ray doesn’t have any immediate plans to slow down, he hopes to eventually spend more time with his family and four grandchildren.

Meanwhile, he will continue to give his time freely for the love of rugby and, as the TRRA’s nomination for TRFU life membership stated, “without recompense but with an untiring desire to make Taranaki Rugby better”.

With 30 years of achievements and service to consider, Ray says it’s easy to pinpoint what he’s most proud of.

“I feel very proud every time I put on my referee’s uniform and boots, grab the whistle and be a part of Taranaki rugby,” he says.