The interviews keep on rolling as have a chat with former North Sydney Bears and Illawarra Steelers foundation player Rodney Henniker.
Henniker speaks of his time at the Bears, his success, the falling out with Ron Willey, his post-footy career and more.
Here are Rodney’s answers:
1. What are your earliest memories of rugby league?
I was a mad St. George supporter in the 60’s and my idol was Billy Smith.
I use to love the way he combined with Chang to set up tries.
I remember crying in my grandparents backyard when the Dragons got eliminated in the preliminary final in 1967 to end their 11 year reign.
2. Your debut came with the North Sydney Bears; what was it like to don the famous Bears jersey and were you expecting your debut?
I signed with Norths in 1979 on my 21st birthday one week before the NSWRL competition started from the Western Suburbs Red Devils in Wollongong.
Tommy Bishop who had coached me in the successful Illawarra Divisional side and club team in 1978 had taken over the Bears.
After the trials, he thought he needed a ball player and goal kicker, so I got the late call up.
The day I signed I played a trial game in Wollongong without having met any of the players or had not had a training run.
The following week I was picked in 1st grade, which I was not expecting, against Cronulla, which included Steve Rogers & the Sorenson Brothers.
Having only had 3 training runs and no hard pre-season training behind me, it was difficult, but still a great experience.
It was a day I won’t forget even though we lost convincingly.
3. You did have some success there, twice finishing as the club’s leading point-scorer; was goal-kicking an aspect of your game that you had always embraced.
I had been a goal kicker in all my teams from 8 year old and spent a lot of time practising from my junior days into grade.
I remember winning a goal kicking competition as a 16 year old in Wollongong in which Mick Cronin was one of the kickers involved.
I really enjoyed the responsibility that went with goal kicking and loved doing it.
I got a real buzz especially when it was the difference in winning a game.
4. You reportedly had a falling out with Ron Willey that led to your departure from the Bears; what happened to cause that falling out?
Ron was a good man and had a lot of success as a coach winning premierships.
He coached five different Sydney clubs, won the 1986 Origin series 3-0 and he cared about his players.
But he liked forwards who were 6ft 6in, ran even time for 100 m and tackled like a dynamo and I wasn’t one of those type of players.
He did appreciate my ball playing ability and goal kicking attributes.
Over the 1980-81 seasons under Ron, I played a lot of first-grade but towards the end I thought it was better to move on for more opportunities.
When the Illawarra Steelers came into the competition, my home town team, I was made an offer to return.
I accepted even though I was offered an extension at Norths.
I loved my time at the Bears and still have a lot of friends there and attend reunions when I can.
5. The Illawarra Steelers were next and you were one of the foundation players; how was your time at the Steelers?
It was great to represent my home town.
Especially to be part of the very first team to take the field on February 28, 1982 against Penrith.
This was alongside a lot of other local juniors from Wollongong like John Dorahy, Brian Hetherington and John Sparkes.
We had some good wins in our initial season under Allan Fitzgibbon, a really good coach.
We won our first game against Souths in round 3, 20-10 and also had a record 45-0 win over Canberra.
Though my season got cut short with a groin injury.
In 1983, I was fortunate to play 24/26 games and really enjoyed that season.
In 1984, under new coach Brian Smith, I would say I learnt a hell of a lot from a very intelligent coach in his first year.
Unfortunately, I injured ligaments in my knee in a Wednesday night game in the National Panasonic Cup.
I was out for a lot of the back end of season but returned to play in reserve grade semi-final series which we were eliminated in the final.
Getting married the week before that final might not have been a good idea, forgoing our honeymoon to play in that game.
After 35 years of marriage, my wife still hasn’t forgiven me!
Recently on February 28, 2020, we had a reunion luncheon for that first Steelers side.
After 38 years, we are all still alive and the event was also attended by the captain of Penrith on that day Darryl Brohman.
6. Post-playing career, you got involved with some coaching in the Picton region and then for the Steelers at a junior level; was coaching always an area you had sought out?
Yes, I loved coaching.
I had stints at Picton( 1985, 89), Ingham NQ (1986), Western Suburbs Illawarra (1987-88, 95, 99) and Berkeley (1990).
I was fortunate to be part of Graham Murray’s coaching staff at the Steelers in 1991-92 as U/21’s coach.
This was a great experience as the club had some great success in those 2 years.
I would have loved to have gone further but other things in life come along, but I had some great times in coaching.
7. Outside of rugby league, how are you keeping busy at the moment?
I’ve been a high school Maths teacher most of my working life.
I currently work casually in Adult Education helping people on Centrelink get back into the workforce.
I’m married with six adult children and eight grandchildren which keeps me busy.
I love following them around everywhere watching them in their different sports.
I also have a dabble with “The Sport of Kings” and follow it regularly.
I have been involved with the local Illawarra league as a selector of divisional sides for many years.
I have also been a Country Rugby League Selector for the past seven years involved with selection of CRL sides in Country Championships for seniors.
I am also now a selector for the U/23’s and the women’s sides which are now under the banner of NSWRL.
8. If you could give advice to any budding rugby league players, what would it be?
Avoid player managers at an early age.
You have to be committed and make sacrifices to make the grade.
You need to listen to the right people who will help give you the best chance to succeed not necessarily what you always want to hear.
You won’t succeed if you stop enjoy playing the game and once it becomes only about money.