There comes a point during your rugby league watching life when the players and indeed coaches that you idolise during your youth retire. There then comes a point when those people complete the course of their life and pass on. It is never an easy experience as many of us know from the passing of John Holmes a few short years ago. |
Last weekend, the pain of the untimely death of a hero was felt again by Leeds fans with the news from Australia of the passing of the former coach Graham Murray aged at a relatively young 58 years old. After years in the rugby league doldrums, Murray is credited by being the first coach in a generation to taste success at Headingley and is regarded by many as the catalyst for the current period of glory that the club has enjoyed for the last nine years.
Born in Sydney in 1955, Murray’s career started with that blue & yellow giant of New South Wales rugby, the Parramatta Eels and whilst widely regarded by his peers down under, he was unable to break in to the first grade side having his path blocked by Kangaroo international John Kolc. Showing some hint of his future career, he guided the Eels reserve grade to their premiership as captain of the side in 1977.
With the departure of Kolc, it would be logically expected that Murray would take up the first grade half back berth at the Cumberland Oval, only to have his pathway blocked by the emerging talent of Peter Sterling.
After captaining the Eels reserve grade to three premierships in five years, Murray moved to South Sydney in 1981, where he spent two seasons as their first choice first grade half back.
Murray’s coaching career within the top flight ARL started in 1987 with Penrith, where in his first season he won another Reserve Grade title, this time as coach.
In 1991, he landed the role of Head Coach for the first time at the unfashionable Illawarra Steelers, which prior to his arrival, had finished in the wooden spoon position three times since their admission to the league in 1980.
Murray soon turned the Steelers around and made them a force in the game. In his first seaon, they missed out on the play-offs by two league points and only then, losing those at the hands of a controversial Bill Harrigan refereeing decision.
The following season, 1992 saw Illawarra win both the pre-season Tooheys Trophy and also qualifying for the play offs for the first time, getting to the Semi Final prior to elimination.
He continued to coach Illawarra until 1995, when the dark clouds of the impending Super League War were gathering and Murray was found to be aligning his top players with the rebel Murdoch lead organisation and was sacked by the club. One notable statistic from his coaching time with such an unfashionable side, was a win percentage at 54%, meaning he won more games than he lost during his tenure.
In the interim, he coached the Fiji side in the 1995 RL World Cup held in England.
Clearly aligned to the Super League side of the war, Murray was technically without a club until he was appointed Head Coach of the Hunter Mariners, a scratch team set up in the wine valleys and as a direct competitor to the established near by Newcastle Knights.
The first Super League season saw an expanded World Club Challenge compared to the one we are used to today and this competition featured all the Super League teams, both in Europe and down under playing each other home and away. As a testament to Murray’s clear coaching ability, he guided HM all the way to the final against Brisbane (beating Wigan at Central Park on the way).
With the Super League War resolved in Australia and the Hunter Mariners being dissolved as part of the compromise, Graham Murray was on the move again. Head Coaching positions were limited both as a result of mergers of clubs and also because of the stigma of Super League alignment, his net had to be cast wider afield.
One team in the Northern Hemisphere was classed as a sleeping giant of the game. A potential huge fan base, team with a sustained period of failure, but a club with ambitious new owners who had saved it from the brink of oblivion and perhaps the best young half back in the game... LEEDS.
Apart from an opening round Challenge Cup defeat to Castleford, the Murray era opened at Leeds with nine league wins and none more important than a Round 2 victory against the then powerhouse Bradford at a snow swept Odsal. The 1998 season also saw the introduction of the play offs and Grand Final system for the first time as the way to decide the Champions. Leeds coming oh-so-close at Old Trafford losing 10-4 to Wigan.
As well as the players, he was very much a fan’s coach and there are several well documented occasions of Murray coming in to the Supporters Club at the back of the South Stand to thank the fans for their efforts in vocally supporting the team.
Such is the esteem the Challenge Cup Final is held down under, there is a story that Murray sneaked in to Wembley during one of his visits to London prior to joining Leeds and was enchanted with the place.
The 1999 cup run should also be remembered not just for the Final, but for the disposal of Wigan (after the sending off of Barrie McDermott at Headingley), St Helens, Widnes and Bradford on the way to Wembley. Basically, Leeds had to play and beat other three big teams in the competition prior to reaching the final. His reaction to the Semi Final victory over Bradford was met by the enigmatic quote of “London in London”.
Around two-thirds of the way through the second season, rumours abounded of Murray’s departure back down under and it was finally confirmed that he would leave Leeds at the end of the 1999 season, to take up the coaching role at North Sydney Bears.
There are stories the suggest the Murray recommended one of his up and coming protégés, a young Australian coach and a previous assistant by the name of Ian Millward as his replacement. Leeds went instead for another one of the Super League war refugees and appointed Dean Lance as Murray’s replacement and a move that is now widely regarded to put the break on Leeds forward momentum for a couple of seasons.
Due to a reorganization of the NRL competition, North Sydney Bears were dissolved from the main competition technically leaving Murray club-less, but the sleeping Sydney giants the Roosters came a calling and appointed Graham as head coach for the 2000 season. During his first year in charge, he proceeded to bind the Roosters in to a Grand Final outfit for the first time since 1975, albeit losing the final to Brisbane 14-6. Indeed, there are many post-death comments that cite Murray as the catalyst for the Roosters 2002 Grand Final victory.
He was also appointed coach for the City Origin side, one of the fundamental ways that New South Wales selects players for the annual State Of Origin series in 2001 and during his five years as coach of the representative side, won the City Vs Country game on three occasions.
For the 2002 season, Murray again moved to a relatively new and unfashionable club in the North Queensland Cowboys. With steady development, they first made the finals series under Murray in 2004.
In 2006, Murray was appointed to the role as full New South Wales Coach for the State Of Origin series and despite winning his first game in charge of the Blues, like so many other NSW coaches in recent years, he lost the series 2-1. He was reappointed for the 2007 series and again, despite winning one game, lost the series 2-1 again.
Whilst supportive of their coach during his origin duties, in 2008 North Queensland announced that season would be Graham Murray’s last as their head coach and he would be replaced at the end of the season by his assistant Neil Henry. After a poor start to the 2008 season, Murray resigned as coach on May 19th.
In 2010, Murray was appointed to his last representative role, as head coach to the ‘Jillaroos’ the Australian national women’s RL team. He was performance director at Newcastle Knights in 2012 and lined up to be Wynnum Manly Seagulls coach for this season, a role he had to relinquish due to ill health. It is testimony to Murray’s coaching that the recent success in the Women’s RL World Cup (played fittingly enough at Headingley) was dedicated to Graham Murray.
In his last year of life, Murray suffered increasingly from ill heath and suffered at heart attack in March of this year, something that he seemed to be recovering from steadily, until a second major heart attack last weekend saw for former Leeds coach lose his battle for life at a tragically young 58 years old.
His legacy at Leeds is there for all to see and he is widely credited with being the start of the Rhinos revolution that has prompted the most successful period in the club’s history. Many of the people connected with the club were around during the Murray era and it was his time that brought Keith Senior to Leeds colours as indeed was a very young Kevin Sinfield.
He was a player’s coach demanding hard work and honesty as drivers for the success it brought. He sorted a number of cliques and removed several established players from the Headingley scene during his early tenure, but after questioned by a journalist about the perceived training environment at the club, Murray was quoted to say “We don’t have any poor trainers at this club any more”.
Victories under GM were hard fought, to such an extent that at one point the RFL famously wrote to Leeds and asked them to stop tacking so hard. Indeed, if you followed the fortunes of Leeds opposition, not only did they invariably lose against Leeds, but they also lost the following week against other sides due to the physical battering that Leeds had taken out of them the previous week.
He was fortunate to inherit the developing talent of Iestyn Harris during his time at Leeds and it was the Murray master stroke to start Harris at full back during the early part of the game when the forwards were battling for domination and as soon as the pack superiority was established, move Harris to the stand off half role (using Marcus St Hilaire as full back) to allow the young Welshman to run riot in the space created against the tiring opposition players.
In another mark of how great a coach he was, he took average or journeymen players and made them better and made good players great. Players like Darren Fleary from Keighley and Anthony Farrell from Sheffield were recruited and turned in to tackling machines by Murray, turning the former in to a Great Britain international. He also perfected the change at hooker with young international No.9 Terry Newton starting the game and then being replaced by Lee Jackson. The likes of Andy Hay, Ryan Sheridan and Francis Cummings all became full internationals during the Murray reign.
Perhaps the finest hour for many of those players and the only major trophy Murray won during his coaching career came at Wembley in May 1999. A nervy opening half hour hid what was to come in the second half, where London (including the Wigan nemeses of Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah) were blown away by the biggest margin of victory in final history. Leroy Rivett had the game of his life scoring four tries and who can forget the barreling run of Barrie McDermott going under the posts, throwing the ball in the air and the huge grin of his white gum shield scoring at the Leeds end. Barrie, another Leeds player who’s career had turned around under the guidance of Graham Murray.
“Leeds Fans – This is for you” said the banner led around by the team and from all of us at Headingley, “Graham … Thank you and this is for you” . Your efforts and success will not be forgotten by those of us that were there that day both on and off the field and you still remain the most successful Leeds coach in the Challenge Cup competition for the last 35 years.