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Rod Henniker was a founding member of the Illawarra Steelers and played three years for them.  Prior to his homecoming to the Illawarra, Rod played for the North Sydney Bears from 1989 until the Steelers were formed.

Heroes of Yesterday, Interview 32 – 15 August 2017 - Rod Henniker

Where did you grow up?

I have always lived in Wollongong, I was born in Wollongong hospital.  Dad came  from Cootamundra to Wollongong to play football.  He was responsible for a lot of my footballing career.  He worked at the Leagues Club for a long time.  Berkley was my first club.  I played with Royce Ayliffe and Brett Rodwell at West Illawarra.  I coached there as well and Brett Kimmorley and and Jason Ryles were in the playing group and we won two consecutive premierships. 

What was your first football experience?

Watching my Dad play in the early years for Western Suburbs was my first experience.  My first game was the 4 Stone for St Pius, Unanderra and my very first game was for Dapto.  I was Seven years of age and Steve Morris was playing for the opposing side.  I remember chasing him all around the park and could never catch him, he was a sensational footballer all of his life.

As a child what was your most memorable experience of Rugby League ?

I was a mad Dragons supporter when I was young and I was in my Grandmothers backyard when the Dragons lost in the 1967 Final that ended their 11 consecutive Grand Final winning streak.  I was absolutely distraught, inconsolable.  You couldn't watch it in those days, I was listening to it with my Pop on the radio, my father's side of the family.  Back yard footy was a big part of our lives, there were no computers back then, we loved kicking a footy around.  It was a big thing, helping me with my goal kicking.  I was born in 1958 and this year I am 58.  In those days the whole neighborhood got together.  

When I was 17 years old I was selected to participate in a goal kicking competition at Lysaghts Oval, Figtree and I ended up winning $250.  I kicked a lot of goals in the local Illawarra competition playing for the Western Suburbs Red Devils and they needed extra players because some people knocked it back.  Mick Cronin and Ross Conlon and other established first grader players were also there.  They needed extra people because some had knocked it back and they said why not get a junior in it?  I was playing as a 5/8 for NSW Juniors at the time.  The competition was to kick goals from either side of the posts and in front, I kicked all six goals.  I was a toe pocker and I ended up playing with John Gray at Norths. 

Did you collect footy cards as a kid ?

I did during the 1960's and 1970's but I stopped once I started playing.  My Mum used to collect my cards.

Who were your footballing heroes as a kid ?

Billy Smith was my idol and I used to love his combination with Graeme Langlands, it was uncanny.  I went to the Tied Grand Final between St George and Parramatta.  I met him again recently at the local Illawarra Grand Final, his ability to see things others players couldn't see was amazing.

What was your Lead up to the top grade?

I played my Juniors from 15 to 18 years of age with Western Suburbs, I came into Grade as a 5/8 at the start of the year.  David Waite came back to the Illawarra competition and I was picked ahead of him after he had played for Australia.  We won most of the games that I played, I scored 272 points in 18 games, breaking the point scoring record in 1977.  David Waite taught me a lot.  Tony Charlton was my first coach, we were beaten in the Major Final and didn't make the Grand Final. 

The following year, 1978 we had a really good Illawarra side, we won the Country Championship.  In the AMCO Cup we beat Balmain and I won Man of the Match, I was interviewed on TV straight after the game and that was a big thing for a country boy like me.  I had to climb a ladder to get up to the commentators.  We played the Roosters in the Semi Final and lost that by 12-2.  Arthur Beetson and Mark Harris scored tries in the last Quater to beat us after we were leading by 2-0.  Tommy Bishop was our coach and he took over our local club side midway through the season.  We got along well and he is the one who took me to Norths.  Five players from my team went to play in Sydney the following season, they were Alan Sheppard, Steve Morris, Brian Johnston and Peter Wynn. 

In the Semi Final against Port Kembla we were beaten by 36 points to 28 and we had four players Sent Off and they had one player Sent Off.  Harry Eden was Sent Off for elbowing Peter Fitzgerald and the other couple were for fighting and one was a head high. 

We won the Final the next week against Dapto who had Steve Morris and Brian Johnston playing for them.  The following week we played Port Kembla again and this time we won.  Three from our four guys got off their suspensions and were available to play.  We kwpt away from the stadium until kick off time because of the tension, 13,400 people attended the local Grand Final, the Dragons don't even get that now. 

Don Parish came down and I was the captain for the 1979 season and I was training during the pre season.  On my 21st birthday I sat in the back of the car on the way to play for North Sydney and I had been out all night until 6am.  We were beaten by Port Kembla and because we lost and he said we had training the following day, I didn't go.  I was picked to play First Grade in the first week of the competition. 

Steve Morris was picked to play for Australia from the Illawarra competition in 1978. 

Do you remember your first game in first grade, and what were the highlights and lowlights?

It was against Cronulla and the great Steve Rogers at North Sydney Oval.   The pace of the game and the enormity of the occasion hit me, it was pretty quick.  It wasn't a great introduction, Rogers scored two or three tries and cut us to pieces.  I had to wait until game three to get my first victory which was against Manly.  I kicked 7 out of 7 goals and Peter Peters gave me the nickname 'Radar' and that stuck.  That year Ken Wilson ended up with 72% and I was second with 71%.

My father was a mad Dragons supporter and he said to me don't sign with the Bears, you will never win a game.  I said you were wrong, we won two.  The second Round we beat the Roosters 10 points to 2 and we didn't score a try, I kicked five goals.

How were the North Sydney years from 1979 to 1981?

The next year Ron Willey took over as coach.  In 1980 he brought with him the best player I every played with, Mark Graham, he was unbelievable that guy.  He was so fit and trained hard, he would be everywhere.  I remember the first game we played together, it was a trial against Wyong and I had never seen him play before.  He did the sign of the cross and I thought holy shit, what is this guy up to and then I saw him play. 

That year I was in and out of First Grade, I didn’t really see eye to eye with coach Ron Willey.  Illawarra were coming into the comp the following year and they came up to watch a game and I was one of the first to sign.

How was the Illawarra Foundation year?

It was great to come back to where I grew up and be involved with the new club.  We had a lot of guys who came home, there was John Dorahy, Brian Hetherington and Shane McKellar.  We only had to wait until game three for a win and that was against Souths, Graham Murray was their half back. 

Our first match was against Penrith, we were confident of a win but didn’t quite get it and the following week we were walloped by the Roosters and that was a reality check so when we won in Round three we celebrated hard.  A few weeks later we beat Canberra by 25-0, to have a win like that did a lot for our confidence.  There was about six weeks to go I tore my groin and missed the last part of the season.  Alan Fitzgibbon was our coach. 

How were the Illawarra years from 1982 to 1984?

The first year I played 24 to 26 games and Bob Milward said, “Gee you made more money than State of Origin players”.  In those days it was worked out on how many games you played.  The following year Brian Smith arrived at the club, during the pre season things were different.  Smith taught me things that I still think about today.  He had a lot of different ideas, we did a pre season camping trip, we were all in tents.  Training commenced at 6am and we trained all day, full fitness, no one had seen anything like it before.  We went to the little club nearby for a few beers on my birthday with Russell Holdsworth and Kim Patrick, we were playing snooker and I went to the toilet, when I came out they were gone.  They had decided to get Brian Smith and throw him on the snooker table.  Those two guys took off, they slept outside the pub and hitch hiked home.  Russell never went back and Kim apologized.  Russell had a promising career ahead of him, he came from Shellharbour, he was a very tough, old school footballer. 

Having said that, I really got along with Brian, even after football years, I have talked to him and asked advice about coaching.  I was lucky enough to win premierships as a coach and I used a lot of his ideas.  My eldest son plays football with his son. 

We came up against the Wests Magpies in one game and I said to Mum, I hope I make it home tonight coming up against Dallas Donnelly, Bob Cooper, Ray Brown and Bruce Gibbs.  Dallas and Mick Ryan started a fight before the kick off and it didn’t even make the papers. 

Who was your most respected rival?

I often had run ins with Kurt Sorenson, he was such a big man and very hard to contain, really hard to tackle.  He sort of had it in for me and I had it in for him.  Les Boy was another one, he was a hard man and he was also very talented.  The hardest person I had been hit by was during a game against Newtown which we won by 55 points to nil at Henson Park.  There was a little 5/8 who wacked me like I had never been hit before and threw me over the sideline, it was his first game too, Dean Lance.

What was the best team you played against?

I have never beaten Parramatta.  While I was at Norths we played them twice in the regular season and once in the AMCO Cup and they beat us by 40 points in each one of those games.  They had players like Ron Hilditch, Paul Taylor, Peter Wynn, Eric Grother, Peter Sterling, they were an extremely talented side. 

What was your highlight of playing Rugby League?

The mateship, in my six years we didn’t have a lot of success.  The first time I played at the SCG I was playing Reserve Grade.  I played two games at the SCG and they were against St George and Balmain

The mateship you make in footy lasts forever.  I still talk to lots of the guys and we still have reunions. 

When did you know it was time to give the game away?

In 1984 during an AMCO Cup game my knee collided with Brad Izzard's head and I suffered crucial ligament damage.  I tried to come back a couple of times later that year but my knee had just had it.  At the end of the year they told me there was no guarantees and that I would have to trial. 

What followed after football?

I captain coached Picton and we won the competition.  I brought with me Phil McKenzie from the Illawarra Steelers and all of the rest were local guys.  The following year I went to coach Herbert River in Ingham, Far North Queensland and Rod Reddy went to Townsville to captain coach in the same competition.  In a trial I saw an under 18’s player score six tries in a game, it was Dean Schifilitti, I brought him down to Wests in the Wollongong competition, he went to university there and then got into the Steelers club. 

1991 and 1992 I was the Presidents Cup coach for the Illawarra Steelers.  Graham Murray was the First Grade coach and John Jansen was the Reserve Grade coach, all three of us were Maths Teachers.  That year Newcastle were unbeatable, they had both of the Johns brothers in the Presidents Cup.  We beat them and we had Ryan Girdler, Brendan O’Meara and John Cross in our side. 

How has the game changed since your playing days?

It is fully professional now, they are bigger, faster and stronger and much fitter now.  It is a lot more structured now, being a ball player you don’t get to be as creative.  It is robotic style.  Wingers are much more important now days. 

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Lagoon in North Wollongong, it is a seafood restaurant. 

What are your hobbies?

I enjoy relaxing with my mates playing golf and looking after seven grand kids and six adult children.  I enjoy watching them with all of their sports. 

Have you collected your own footy cards ?

My Mum was unbelievable at collecting stuff.  When we have reunions a lot of people send them for me to sign.

Have you collected scrap book ?

My Mum did and I still have it, cleaning up recently and found it.