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.

No comments: