Legend Q&A: Mark Graham

Mark Graham was a trail-blazer for rugby league in New Zealand.

He showed Kiwis could cut it in the Australia in the 1980s when he was a mainstay of the North Sydney side, becoming captain of the Bears while also representing his homeland with distinction.

In 2019 he became the first New Zealander inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame as recognition for his tireless efforts with the Bears and Kiwis during his career from 1975-89.

In the latest instalment in a series of Legend Q&As from the Rugby League Week archives, he discusses his turbulent career on and off the field which included more than a few run-ins with officialdom.

Mark Graham

For the punishment you took and your ability to play with pain. What was your secret?

I think you have to look at your upbringing for the answer to stuff like that. I grew up in Otahahu and it was one tough town - it was where the movie Once Were Warriors was set. The gangs there would stick a knife in you if you looked at them the wrong way. When I came to Australia I got a big laugh out of what you call ’gangs’… trust me, they are nothing compared to Kiwi-land.

So did you join a gang?

My father made it clear that if I did, he would have put me in the hospital - and he meant it. He told me “All your mates will end up either dead or in jail” … and I have to hand it to him - he was right. He sent me to boarding school and it probably saved my life. It also introduced me to football and hard training so it was great. 

Were you always going to be a footballer?

Far from it. My plan after leaving school was to become a fisherman. Football was hard work then. I’d work as a brickies labourer all day, then go and have dinner, and play a Wednesday night game for Auckland and get paid maybe $10, which I’d spend before I left the ground.

Then I crashed in bed because I had to be up next morning for work at 5am. But Graham Lowe was my coach at Otahuhu and when he moved to Brisbane to coach Norths, he persuaded me to go with him.  

Was it tough adapting to Aussie football?

Really tough - the heat in Brisbane. I remember my first game, I went to church the Sunday morning and prayed for rain so it would cool down. Sure enough, I was driving to the game with Graham and it started pouring and I laughed.

He asked why and I explained my prayers had been answered. But just before kick-off the rain stopped and the humidity was unbearable. I couldn’t take it. Twice I had to belt blokes to start fights - just to slow things down a little.  

And you had a few clashes with a young Wally Lewis when you arrived?

Wally was just a kid but you could see he was going to be a great player. But he didn’t mind the niggle and neither did I. I actually put him in hospital twice! The first time I was playing for Norths and he came in from the blindside trying to belt me.

My background taught me to look out for that sort of thing - I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye and hit him - broke his jaw.

My father made it clear that if I did join a gang, he would have put me in the hospital.

Mark Graham

The second time I went down the blindside with the ball and hit him with my elbow when he tried to tackle me high. Wally went down and he used to act a bit, so I didn’t worry. Then I saw him turning blue on the ground.

I told the linesman ’Hey, you better have a look at this bloke’. It turned out I crushed his oesophagus. He reckoned I was trying to kill him … the way I see it [laughing], I saved his life. 

How did you come to join North Sydney?

I was due to meet with [Norths secretary] Ken McCaffery one Sunday afternoon in Brisbane. That morning, I went to church and he was there … so that was a good start.

Then he called me when I was touring England with the Kiwis in 1980 and offered me $15,000. I said if you double it, I’ll agree this minute. He did … and I realised then I could have made a lot more!

But the joke was on him - what he didn’t realise is that I would have played for nothing. My first contract at Brisbane Norths, I signed the back of a coaster in the pub and they gave me $500 ... Money never meant much to me.

You had eight years with Norths - and they were lean years for the Bears. That must have been hard?

It was - we had some fair sides but often beat ourselves. The officials weren’t great and that made it hard. At one stage they appointed a coach who had been out of footy in the bush for 10 years … he didn’t even know the rules.

The North Sydney Bears of 1983 with Mark Graham (third from the right in the second row)
The North Sydney Bears of 1983 with Mark Graham (third from the right in the second row) ©NRL Photos

It wasn’t his fault - he was just out of his depth. I blew up at the club - I told them "youse blokes are kidding". So they sacked him and one of the board members said to me "Are you happy now?". And I said "No - not until you sack yourselves", which of course they did not.

You have strong views on officialdom, don‘t you?

I have played and coached a lot and have come to realise rugby union is an amateur game run by professionals and league is a professional game run by amateurs.

League is a great product but is run very poorly.

Mark Graham was a tower of strength for under-achieving Norths sides in the 1980s.
Mark Graham was a tower of strength for under-achieving Norths sides in the 1980s. ©NRL Photos

You were named New Zealand’s Player of the Century in 2007... Quite an honour?

It was … very humbling. We had some great battles against the Aussies in the 1980s and I think that is one reason they went for me.

I was captain the infamous night in Brisbane when Greg Dowling and Kevin Tamati started fighting on the way to the sin bin… that stink all came about because of me.

I took the ball up early and Noel Cleal and Steve Roach both smashed me in the head - I was out before I hit the ground. My cheekbone was smashed and I didn’t know what day it was. That started all the fireworks.

Did you last the game?

I tried. They worked on me at half-time and I went back out for the second half. The ref asked me "Are you ready" and I said "Yep".

We kicked off and I just stood there on the halfway line for a few minutes … I didn’t move. One of the trainers took me back to the sheds and laid me down. A journalist asked me next day why I was putting up bombs in the Test and I told him he was crazy.

Then I looked at the video … and I was putting up bombs. I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I blame the ARL for that mess - they appointed a New Guinea guy to referee the game - we didn’t even get a penalty for the hit that KO’d me.

And you finished your career in England?

Yes, I signed with Wakefield for three years. But in my first year Brent Todd did his knee and they sacked him so they wouldn’t have to pay him up.

I told them that wasn’t right and they told me to shut up - that I was getting paid too much money to be complaining. So I said to them "You know what… I quit… it’s only money" … and that was that.

Mark Graham on the charge at North Sydney Oval.
Mark Graham on the charge at North Sydney Oval. ©NRL Photos

You coached the Warriors for two years - how was that?

Very challenging. But again, it ended badly. A new group came in and bought the team off the previous Maori owners.

They wanted to slash the players’ pay in half. So I got all the players together and we agreed we would stick together and refuse to sign any of these new contracts until we contacted the players union and negotiated with the new owners.

Within 24 hours, one of our highest-profile players call me and said he’d caved in - that he’d signed with the new mob.

I went berserk - I said he was lucky he wasn‘t in front of me then and there because I would have knocked him out.

 

This article first appeared in Rugby League Week on August 11, 2010