Monday, July 29, 2013

Graham Murray (1955-2013)

"Nice guys finish last."

Or so one school of thought would have us believe anyway. It doesn't have to be so, and if you want proof you could do much worse than look to Graham Murray.

Murray, who passed away in a Brisbane hospital following his second major heart attack in six months, was undoubtedly a nice guy. The tributes that have flowed in from around the rugby league community following his death have spoken only briefly about Murray the coach, focussing instead on Murray the person.

A man who valued honesty - to others, but most importantly to yourself - as the key to success. A man who wasted no time bearing grudges, to the point where he was out enjoying a drink with Bob Millward the day after the Illawarra chairman had sacked him as first grade coach. No bitter recriminations, no mud-slinging through tame journalists in the media. It just wasn't the Murray way.

Don't let the lack of focus on his professional life convince you that he couldn't coach though.

Wherever he went,  Murray left a positive footprint. First coach to win a trophy at Illawarra. World Club Challenge runner-up with the fledgling Hunter Mariners. First Leeds coach to win the Challenge Cup in 21 years. First coach to take the Roosters to a Grand Final in 25 years.

These are just the bare facts and achievements. What isn't as easily measurable is the culture change he left behind, and nowhere was this more obvious than at Headingley.

When Murray arrived at Leeds in 1998, the club was not so much a long time between drinks as dying of dehydration on the steps of the pub. It had spent money it didn't have trying - and failing - to keep up with the all conquering Wigan side of the 1990s and was being rebuilt by the team of Paul Caddick and Gary Hetherington.

The club had not been to a major final since the 1984 John Player Trophy win and hadn't won the Challenge Cup since 1978 or the Championship since 1972.

Not that Murray's impact was immediate. An opening game last second defeat to local rivals Castleford didn't do much to warm the Leeds fans towards the new man. What happened next however, most definitely did.

Murray put together a side, and a forward pack in particular, that took intensity and physicality to a new level. Led by the likes of Darren Fleary, Anthony Farrell, Barrie McDermott, Adrian Morley and Australian veteran Mark Glanville it played the game as hard, fast yet fair as the rules allowed. To the point where the RFL took the unprecedented step of writing to the club and asking it to "play nice" with the other boys.

It wasn't all just biff and barge however. Behind the scrum Murray could call on the mercurial talents of the young Iestyn Harris, the experience and direction of Daryl Powell and the magical handling of Brad Godden. Leeds were as capable of going around you as they were through you.

By the end of the season, Leeds were in the inaugural Super League Grand Final, losing narrowly to Wigan on a filthy night at Old Trafford. 1998 however, was just the appetiser to a very special main course.

The following year, Leeds made it to the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. They had been here before in 1994 and 95, losing both times to Wigan. On this occasion they were to face the London Broncos, now featuring their tormentor on both those previous occasions in Martin Offiah.

From the fifty minute mark onwards, the result of the game was never really in doubt. Young winger Leroy Rivett scored four tries, Barrie McDermott threw an audacious sidestep in to score one of his own and Leeds ran up a record score in a Challenge Cup Final to claim the trophy for the first time in 21 years.

At the end of the season Murray returned home to Australia, but by the time he did so he had not only righted the ship at Leeds but pointed it squarely on a course that would see it become the dominant side of the last 10 years. His influence continues to be felt in the number of his former players who are coaching at a high level either in first grade or junior development.

A top coach, a great bloke and a sadly missed family member and friend to many. RIP Muzz, proof that being a nice guy doesn't stop you being a winner.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies and Politics

Let's face it, none of us genuinely think that politicians are telling us the whole truth all of the time. While the field of political communications may not be quite the bloodbath portrayed in "The Thick Of It" and "In The Loop", it's fair to assume that some figures receive massages that not even the most blatant of MPs would put on their expenses.

From the Iraq war "45 minutes" to Grant Shapps "a third of government spending is on welfare", there are plenty of examples out there of politicians playing around with numbers for support - in much the same way as a drunk seeks out a lamppost.

This week however has seen a couple of special examples of the art.

The Department of Health briefed the media ahead of the publication of the report into eleven failing NHS Trusts by clinical director Sir Bruce Keogh. This led to the widespread reporting of a figure of 13,000 "excess" deaths in the Trusts investigated. It's fair to assume that this briefing and in particular the 13,000 excess deaths figure went on with Ministerial approval.

And yet, Keogh himself has come out and dismissed the mortality rates used to come up with this 13,000 figure as "meaningless". It simply was not possible, in his opinion, to extrapolate a figure of excess deaths from his statistics with any degree of accuracy.

Now I don't much care for Sir Bruce. His actions in the debate on children's heart surgery in Leeds showed that he's not above using irrelevant statistics to justify his own ideology and opinions.

It seems in this case that he has kicked a stool out from under the Health Secretary's claims.  Keogh's rebuttal however, has received nothing like the same coverage in the media as the distorted statistics that prompted it in the first place.

If you think that's a bit of poor form, just wait. You haven't seen anything yet.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (he of the rent-free living in his father in law's country mansion) stated that 8,000 people who otherwise wouldn't have taken up work had done so as a result of the pilot of the new benefits cap.

This claim was referred to the Office for National Statistics, who decided that there was no "causal link between the benefits cap and people moving into work". In other words, that he made the numbers up. So what does IDS do? Apologise? Keep quiet and hope it goes away? Oh no, not him.

He came out on yesterday's "Today" programme on Radio 4 with probably the most bare-faced pile of codswallop I've heard in a long time. Read on, and prepare for your jaw dropping...

"You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right. I believe we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going back to work until this group were capped."

Get a load of that. He made a statement and it was pointed out to him that there was no evidence to back it up. However, he believes what he said to be right. Facts. Schmacts. Who needs evidence based assessment and research when you can just believe stuff and it becomes true? It's the political equivalent of Dorothy putting on her ruby slippers, clicking her heels three times and telling us there are no lies like politicians lies.

So why does it matter? Why are we so bothered? The lies have been exposed now, it's not like anyone is going to keep believing them outside of IDS's own fantasy world, is it?

In a poll conducted by IPSOS-MORI last month on a representative sample of over 1,000 adults, they were quizzed on what they thought they knew about public services, welfare, immigration and a number of other topics.

A couple of alarming results jumped out.

In response to the question "In your opinion, what proportion of girls under the age of 16 get pregnant in Britain every year", the mean response was 15%. That would be more than one in seven. The actual figure of course is much lower, at 0.6%.

To the question "Of every £100 spent on the welfare budget, how much do you think is claimed fraudulently?" the mean response was £24. That would account for a quarter of the welfare budget being given out to people who are not entitled to it. The actual figure? No surprise to realise it is much lower at 0.7%. So for every £100, only 70p is down to fraud.

Across the whole spectrum of the survey, things were shown to be not as "bad" as the public perceived them to be. The percentage of the UK population that were immigrants, black or Asian, Muslim - all much lower than the responses suggested. 

So why do we have such a distorted opinion of what is happening in our own country? I refer the honourable reader to the answer I gave some moments earlier. A government determined to place ideology ahead of evidence and a media either too complicit or casual to care.

Time to put down the Kool-Aid, before it's too late.

If you're interested, the topline results of the IPSOS-MORI survey "Perils of Perception" can be found at