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Vale Don Furner, dynasty builder, Raiders founder and recruitment guru

Don Furner laid the foundations for two of the code's greatest modern dynasties, was a driving force behind the establishment of the Canberra Raiders and had a huge influence on the careers of Wayne Bennett, Arthur Beetson, Glenn Lazarus and many others.

Furner, who passed away on Monday night after a long illness, was heavily involved in rugby league for most of his 87 years as a player, coach or administrator, and handed on his love for the game to sons Don, the current Raiders CEO, and David, who played and coached at the club.

He represented Australia before turning to coaching after injury cut short his playing career and had charge of the undefeated 1986 Kangaroos, while steering Eastern Suburbs and Canberra to grand finals in 1972 and 1987 respectively.

A former boxing champion, Furner placed an emphasis on fitness that bought the best out in Beetson and Lazarus, and he paved the way for the Roosters' grand final triumphs under Jack Gibson in 1974-75, and Canberra's three premierships under Tim Sheens between 1989 and 1994.

Regarded by Bennett as among the top three talent spotters he has known, Furner recruited the likes of Beetson, Ron Coote, John Brass, John Ballesty and Mark Harris to the Roosters and Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Peter Jackson, Sam Backo, Steve Walters and Garry Coyne to the Raiders.

Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley after the 1994 grand final.
Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley after the 1994 grand final. ©NRL Photos

Lazarus, Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley were young players who came through the ranks at Canberra under Furner, the inaugural Raiders mentor, and he took Bennett under his wing in 1987 in a unique dual coaching role.

"I don't believe I would be where I am today or have done what I have done without that year with him," said Bennett, who has won a record seven premierships with Brisbane and St George Illawarra.

"He used to say I was the first winger he had ever seen who could coach, and another of his funny lines was when we led 24-0 against Parramatta at Parramatta and got beat 26-24, he said I coached the first half and Wayne coached the second half.

"He taught me that when times are tense and tough just to make light of it and back off a little bit. He was a tough man but when the game was over he was an absolute gentleman and he done a lot of good for a lot of people."

One of those was Lazarus, who said Furner had a big influence on him – from a childhood cheering the Queanbeyan Blues teams he coached to 10 premierships in 13 years, to the day in 1987 when he suggested the Hall of Fame prop move from the second row to front row.

"There are a lot of blokes who owe their footy careers and their livelihoods to him in terms of opportunities he gave them when people couldn't see that they had something to offer," Lazarus said. "A lot of people, including myself, went on to bigger and better things because of him.

"He came up to me one day at training and grabbed me around the spare tyre," Lazarus said. "He said, 'I want you to start thinking about playing in the front row' because we were short of front-rowers.

Glenn Lazarus was the first captain of the Storm.
Glenn Lazarus was the first captain of the Storm. ©NRL Photos

"I look at that as a defining moment because until my early 20s I was a back-rower and I didn't even think about playing in the front row so that was life-changing for me in terms of my career It just went from there until I got into first grade and away I went.

"Grabbing me around the spare tyre, he was probably also indicating that I needed to think about losing a bit of weight or moving into the front row, which I did, and by the time Wayne went to Brisbane and Sheensy came in I was entrenched in the front row."

Furner also wanted Beetson to get fitter after recruiting the superstar forward to Easts from Balmain in 1970 and he engaged the help of fellow forwards Ballesty, John Quayle and Barry "Bunny" Reilly to train with him.

"In those days he didn't have a fitness trainer and we started every training session with him doing the physical stuff," Quayle said.

"Naturally, Arthur hated to train and we were fortunate then that a lot of us had jobs at the [Easts] Leagues Club so Donny would make sure that myself and 'Bunny' would train with him.

"We were good trainers so when Arthur turned up we would have to take him for a run down to Centennial Park and back. That was attributed a lot to Arthur's resurgence in those early days at the Roosters.

"Don had a great discipline but he also knew what he wanted in a player and he bought Arthur and Ron Coote and players like John Ballesty, John Brass and Mark Harris. Jack took the team to the top in 1974 and 1975 but a lot of us knew that it was him who got those players to the Roosters back then."

Bennett said that Furner also built the Raiders team that dominated the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"He was a smart recruiter, he was in the best three I have ever worked with," Bennett said. "He had a whole lot of Queenslanders there who were in the prime of their careers and they were the nucleus of the team that would go on to win the premierships."

Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett.
Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett. ©

Furner's recruitment of Meninga in 1985 was considered a masterstroke and he later added Stuart, the current Canberra coach, after he had toured Argentina with the Wallabies in 1987.

"Don was the only influence really for me travelling to Canberra and playing there," Meninga said. "He enticed me and a whole group of Queenslanders to go down to Canberra, and the rest is history really.

"We had a lot of success in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, across the whole club and he was instrumental in setting that up, along with Les McIntyre. Without those two and their families there would be no Raiders.

"I am thankful for the opportunity and glad I took it. There was no segregation, firsts trained with seconds and Under 23s every Tuesday night. We trained at night then and it was often freezing cold but the whole club was together and it was a really good environment, so we enjoyed it."

Stuart revealed he had almost joined the Raiders earlier but Furner advised him to repeat Year 12 and try to achieve the most he could out of rugby union first.

"That was probably the greatest piece of advice as a young boy I could get," Stuart said. "His ability to attract and recruit players, manage them in the early parts of the Raiders foundation was years beyond himself.

"It's very hard to rebuild a club so it would be even harder to start a club and there was very quick success under Don Furner, and that's a tribute to the person he was.

"He had such a massive impact on the club and was around the club for many years when he did finish coaching before he got quite ill. It was always great to see his big, bubbly personality and I see a lot of that in David and Donny [junior].

"He was a fun man to be around and I was very fortunate to spend a lot of my childhood days at the Furner household with old Don there as a father."

Born in Condobolin, Furner played for a range of clubs across both Queensland and New South Wales, including Souths (Toowoomba), Roma, Junee and Queanbeyan. He represented Queensland on eight occasions and toured England with the 1956-57 Kangaroos.

After his coaching success with Queanbeyan Blues, Furner was recruited by Les McIntyre to add credibility to Canberra's push to enter the NSWRL premiership and became the inaugural Raiders coach in 1982.

"I remember in my early days with the League, so many people were opposed to Canberra coming in at that particular time but Les and Donny convinced the League that Canberra had a future," said Quayle, the former NSWRL and ARL chief executive.

"He became part of the coaching scene and coached Australia, and after that I had the job of taking on foul play so Donny became the person, along with Paul Broughton and Mick Stone, who helped me.

"I would do all the video assessments in those early days and it was Donny who was able to speak to the coaches so he played a very important role in the administration as well."

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NRL CEO Todd Greenberg paid tribute to Furner for his service to the game as a player, coach and administrator, which included a stint as Australian chairman of selectors after his tenure as Kangaroos coach ended in 1988. He also coached Fiji at the 2000 World Cup.

"Very few have been able to do that in rugby league," Greenberg said. "Don will be missed but he will always have a place in the game as one of the founding figures of the Raiders, along with other significant achievements.

"On behalf of the game I offer my sincerest condolences to Don's family and friends, particularly his sons David and Don who have also made significant contributions to the sport."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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