In an era when rugby league is often perceived as more a business than sport – evidenced by mid-season coach sackings that were once the exclusive domain of the British league, player transfers and board battles that get as much publicity as the footy action – Graham Murray is a reminder of the real values that should always endure.
To ‘Muzza’, no matter whether it was State of Origin, NRL, Queensland Cup, youth talent development at Newcastle or the local league at Townsville – and he was involved in all those levels in the past seven years – rugby league was still sport; a domain to excel, but to enjoy. It was about fun, and mateship, and passion and about bringing people together.
And he did that as well as anyone I have come across in rugby league.
That’s why we’ll miss so much the 58-year-old who passed away on Sunday night after failing to recover from his second heart attack in five months. And why so many phone calls, emails, text messages and Twitter comments are flying around league cyber space today.
The other thing that saw Muz stand out in these increasingly win-at-all-costs times revolves around the word ‘ego’, which has taken on far too much prominence across the NRL.
Muz didn’t care for the egotists, because he sure wasn’t one. He treated everyone the same, whether a high-level businessman, government official, local league follower, fan, or a friend of a friend in a pub.
That was the enduring part of his character; his down-to-earth nature never changed from when he was a kid from Liverpool who became a maths teacher and captained the Eels to their first President’s Cup (under-21s) victory in 1975 – when I first saw him play – and reserve grade to premiership glory in 1977 (when I first met him), before earning the ‘Little Artie’ tag as an 88-game first grader with Parramatta and Souths.
Here is a man who, while Super League was put on hold in 1996, coached a local side at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Who was happy to coach Fiji in the 2008 World Cup, the Jillaroos women’s side earlier this year; who went back to school teaching – with a smile – when dumped by the Roosters in 2001, and to work with the Townsville rugby league after his demise at the Cowboys, once manning the turnstiles at rep games!
But to overload any analysis of Graham Murray too far towards the ‘master of camaraderie’ tag is to downplay his knowledge of the game. You don’t have the success Murray did without a superior understanding of tactics and what it took to be successful, something Cowboys football manager Peter Parr made emphasis of when I spoke to him just these past couple of weeks. Muz just didn’t see the need to over-complicate that aspect.
Another standout part of his character is that he was happy to give responsibility and kudos to others around him. A prime example is Neil Henry – ironically now under similar pressure for his Cowboys job as Murray was before Henry succeeded him in 2010 – who he welcomed as assistant coach at the Cowboys in late 2002, allowing him to emerge as the technical and statistics king of the partnership, with great success.
Murray began coaching at Lismore in 1985 before serving under Tim Sheens at Penrith, winning a reserve grade title in 1987, and under Warren Ryan at Balmain before getting his first grade honours at Illawarra in 1991 after being former Eels team-mate Ron Hilditch’s assistant for a season.
He was the prince of breakthroughs at clubs although his only first grade title came in England in 1999 when he led Leeds to Challenge Cup final glory, their first piece of silverware in 21 years. The 52-16 Cup victory against London (after being 10-0 behind) is still a Cup final record score.
He took Illawarra to their first finals series in their 11th season in 1992, going down to eventual premiers Brisbane. Dumped by the Steelers after signing with Super League, he took the Hunter Mariners to the World Club Challenge in 1997 (again losing to Brisbane) despite the team knowing they were on death row.
He departed to Leeds to stay in the profession and after two seasons returned to coach Norths from the Central Coast – only to find, while in South Africa in transit with wife Amanda and daughter Cara, that the Bears had been cut from the competition.
The Sydney Roosters gave him a lifeline and he took them to their first grand final since 1980 (beaten by… yep, Brisbane again), only to be dumped after one more season before being given the job at North Queensland and continuing his ‘breakthrough’ record by coaching the Cowboys to their first finals appearance in 2004, their 10th season, and a grand final the following year.
After great success with the City side for four years, Murray was elevated to NSW Origin coach in 2006-07 and while at the time his lack of success was looked at harshly, retrospect shows that if it wasn’t for Darren Lockyer snatching onto a wayward pass from dummy-half in the dying minutes of the deciding Origin clash in 2006, he may have been the only Blues coach in eight years to have tasted series success.
Queensland coach in that 2006 series, his great mate Michael Hagan, was one of many, many people who were left stunned by Murray’s relapse in recent weeks, and the tragic news last night, after he appeared to be recovering well from his March heart attack, from which those close to him knew he was extremely lucky to survive.
“Graham, along with Keith Onslow, was the person who first inspired me to have a go at coaching (at the Hunter Mariners) when I had no thoughts of a career in that area and he remained a mentor and close friend ever since,” said Hagan.
“His achievements over so many years have to be so respected but also what stands out is how he was so successful in moulding team spirit and a whole unit at a club – and recognising the importance of that to achieve success in an era where the head coach’s job expanded into having far broader responsibilities that just coaching the team.
“He taught me plenty. He had a few jobs cut short, as many coaches do, but each time he moved on with dignity; he would have just as many friends at the Steelers, Roosters and Cowboys as anywhere else.”
That fact will be made obvious when his service is held in coming days.