Graham Murray was one of my first interviewees, doing this piece for the first issue of Thirteen in 2005, the year he took unfancied North Queensland Cowboys to the Grand Final.
You were the Dally M coach of the year in 1992 in the job where you made your name as a coach. You must have good memories of coaching Illawarra Steelers?
It was my first ever first grade job; exciting times. It was the first time they ever made the semi finals and we won the Toohey’s Cup, which is a midweek competition and the club’s first ever trophy. As a young coach it also taught me a lot about how to organise a first grade football team. I can’t have anything but fond memories of my first ever first grade job.
What about coaching Fiji in the 1995 World Cup? It must have been hard enough facing England and Australia even without Fiji’s best player James Pickering?
Yeah we did, that was about half way through the year so we knew we weren’t going to have him for the tournament. It was a tough tournament but the day we beat South Africa at Keighley 56-6 was just a sensational day and everyone was really excited about how we played. We were never ever a chance of beating England or Australia though. They were great football sides. They were great days as well.
How difficult was your time at Hunter Mariners given all the politics in the game at the time?
Yeah it was difficult but at the same time it made it enjoyable because we had to pull together as a team because there were a lot of people in the area not to happy with us. We became a very close knit club; not only the players but all the staff and we had a fairly successful year on the back of some pretty fair football. The team spirit and camaraderie helped us have a great year.
The Super League World Club challenge would be an obvious highlight but on the flip side of that did the competition worry you about the standards of the British Super League bearing in mind you were due to coach Leeds in 1998?
Yeah it probably did. It gave everyone a wake up call in the English game and I think that everyone thought “gee we’re not as good as we thought we were.”
Did the defeat by Castleford in the 1998 CC benefit you as it left you with 8 weeks before the SL season? Almost another pre season to get things right?
Yeah you’re dead right. If you remember I didn’t get there till mid January and in fairness I probably didn’t realise the importance of the Challenge Cup at the time. We got kicked out of a competition that I didn’t really realise how important it was. I remember Gary Hetherington saying to me that it gives us plenty more preparation time and we had a good unbeaten run in the Super League when it started.
You went nine unbeaten and won convincingly at Odsal. Were you surprised at how quickly the Rhinos were transformed?
Yeah probably but we had a good tough side and what we had to do was get a good defensive pattern together. We had big hitters in the team like Morley, Masella, Farrell and Fleary and we had to go with their strengths which was their defensive prowess. That day at Odsal is still vivid in my mind and what a great day it was. A lot of the Leeds fans said to me before the game “just make it a good score. We don‘t care if we don‘t win. Just make it a good score!” I looked at them in bewilderment saying “we’re going to win” and then they were looking at me in amazement! We put our foot in the door of the competition that day.
Who was the best player in the Super League at the time?
Iestyn Harris. Followed by Morley. I might be biased but I think we had the best back and best forward in the competition.
Which others would have made a good impression in the NRL?
Well obviously Morley has and Harris would have done. He’s a class player. And I’ve got a soft spot for Darren Fleary. I think he could have done a job in the NRL if the coach had accepted he was a tough forward with a lot of whack in him but not the great ball skills of other players.
After a defeat at Wheldon Road in 1998 you were slightly critical of the Leeds half backs citing the fact that you were a half back yourself. How frustrating is it for a coach knowing you used have to have certain talents that aren’t being displayed by the team you’re coaching?
I’m very very critical of playmakers not because I was necessarily great at it myself but because they’re so important to the team. You’ve got to promote yourself to the team in that position and make the vital decisions. Ryan Sheridan improved out of sight in my time there though. But it’s my style I suppose to be a bit to harsh on the players who may have to make the decisions.
Central Park in 1998 was a rough night wasn’t it?! The Morley incidents….
Well we won….We had some great clashes at Central Park. I quite enjoyed going there. The Brad Godden try was great at the end when he was down on one knee, got himself going and scored the try to win the game. That was a pretty ugly incident you refer to but it showed what a great bloke Morley was. He didn’t whinge about it and in the press conference he didn’t say anything other than “it’s a bit sore.” And then he came back on! If it had been a couple of inches lower it could have been the cheekbone but it got him just above the eye and he just needed a few stitches but it was a pretty lethal blow wasn’t it?
Is there anything about the 1998 Grand Final that you regret? Would you do anything differently now?
No, it was a pretty wet night. The only regret we have is letting Jason Robinson score just before half time when we had been on top for the whole game but he’s done it to plenty of teams hasn’t he? We went in 6-4 down and it didn’t give us the right feeling at half time. We’d done so many positive things in the first half and thought we deserved to go in in front but that’s the way it is sometimes.
When Leeds won the 1999 cup semi final the BBC commentator Jon Champion told a story at the end of you letting yourself into Wembley in 1984 to have a look around. Was that true?!
Yeah I laughed about that this morning and I didn’t know you were going to ring me! I was living in London for twelve months and there was no one else to sightsee with that particular day so I went to Wembley by myself. It wasn’t open for the general public but there was a gate open. I didn’t scale a wall or anything! A bloke let me carry on and I went into the dressing rooms. A cleaner down there took a couple of photographs of me in there!
Was it all still the same fifteen years later?
It was, it was. seemed to be anyway!
Wembley 1999. What still sticks in the mind?
Probably the lead up to the whole thing. Beating Wigan then St Helens. Then Widnes away and Bradford in the semi final after being down 10-0. Getting to the final was a special moment. Then the whole day, the whole atmosphere at Wembley; all our families were there and a couple of mates flew over from Australia to watch it. It was a tough first half, they led us 10-0 but then the dominance we showed in the second half particularly Morley and Andy Hay I thought had a pretty big input when he came on.
Have you followed the fortunes of the Rhinos players from those two years?
Yeah course I have. I’ve always tried to keep up to speed with those lads.
We’re also interviewing Terry Newton in this issue…
Yeah he’s a good lad Terry. Always found it difficult with Terry because he was one of the only Lancashire lads in the side. I nearly got to understand all the others but couldn’t understand him! I was always asking Damian McGrath “What did he say?!”
Were you disappointed when Iestyn went to union?
Oh no, not at all. It was something Iestyn wanted to try and good on him and challenge himself. But it’s good to see him back. He’s a great fella and a great player.
Have you tried to take any other English players to Australia in the past?
No I haven’t mate. The Roosters said that they were trying to get Morley and I said “I’d love you to.” I sort of upped the ante there being involved but I’ve never tried for anyone else.
Yes, when you got the North Sydney Bears job the rumours over here were that you’d be taking Harris and Morley…
Yeah I’d love to have! I still think Harris could make it over here…
How frustrating was Adrian Morley’s form when he first went to the NRL especially with you knowing exactly what he could do?
It probably took a fair bit of adaptation to the Australian game and I was thinking “you can do a lot more than that.” But once he went into a core position or a front row position he showed what Adrian was all about, a pretty tough, uncompromising sort of player.
Who is the best player you’ve ever coached?
Well I didn’t have enough time with Brad Fittler but he’s got to be in that category. One with a bit of skill who I had some time with as a young bloke was Paul McGregor. We didn’t have a great side with Illawarra just a great working side but Paul could do special things on the field and make sure we were always a chance of winning a football match, In England, there’s no doubt that Iestyn Harris was the best I coached over there.
Which player had the best attitude to training?
Probably Darren Fleary. He came from a second-division side [Keighley] and the days I laid eyes on him on a tape and then when I first met him I just knew there was something special about the bloke. Not extremely talented but certainly committed and he gave everything in every game, every training session and every team meeting. It was such a proud moment, more so for him but for me as well when he played for Great Britain. I just felt that was one guy who had come from obscurity, worked hard on what he had and scaled the heights of playing for Great Britain. I think that’s a great message for any kid out there. You don’t have to be given every talent to get to the top level of sport.
It’s a home game. The ground is packed and the team is winning. Does Headingley or Dairy Farmers have the better atmosphere?
The English will win this every time. It’s something special that people over here don’t realise. I always remember the home game with Wigan in 1998 [Leeds won 16-8] on a Friday night. I was pretty new to the crowd but they started singing for the first time “There’s only one Graham Murray.” I didn’t quite understand what they were saying because of the English accent but Damian McGrath told me to acknowledge it and then they give you that almighty cheer! At Dairy Farmers it’s quite good but we don’t have the singing. I regret the last game of the regular season I coached there against London Broncos in 1999 I promised a couple of young kids that I’d go and stand with them if we were winning easily but that didn’t happen and I couldn’t do that. My wife spent two games over there and she said the atmosphere was unbelievable. I still remember the day the sprinklers came on against Castleford, the touch judge got sprayed and the Southstand started singing “What’s it like to have a wash?!” It was so spontaneous and energetic. I loved every minute of the Headingley experience.
You’re doing a wonderful job at the Cowboys. What are your ambitions for this season?
We probably got ahead of ourselves last year in making the semi finals. I thought our semi finals would start this year. You don’t knock that though because we had a great run last year but I’d be disappointed if we don’t make the semi finals again
Some great young talent has been unearthed at the Cowboys in your time as coach. Who else do you have on the fringes of a similar standard?
Brenton Bowen who is Matthew’s cousin. He’s quite exciting and can play in a number of positions as well and a young prop called Matthew Scott who I think has a great future.
We may even see more Cowboys than Broncos in State of Origin soon…
Yeah I think we will and that’ll be great for Queensland. We’re a strong team playing in tough games and that gets you hardened for Origin and the day there’s five Cowboys and four Broncos will be a terrific day for Queensland.
Do you watch the English game now and which players stand out for you?
I don’t watch as much as I’d like to but Danny McGuire stands out and would definitely make it in the NRL. Then there’s the usual guys like Sculthorpe, Cunningham and Long. The good thing about it is the young guys coming through. Look at the Leeds team stacked with young guys coming through. Sinfield played under us and we gave Chev Walker his debut as a sixteen year old against Salford and he scored two sixty metre tries and I thought to myself that this bloke has got some ability! As well as the academy we also had an under sixteen side with guys like Burrow, McGuire and Calderwood