Graham Murray: Rubgy coach who took Leeds Rhinos to Super League success

 

Graham Murray, the coach who started the internal revolution that made Leeds the dominant side in Super League, has died in Australia at the age of 58.

Leeds were the great under-achievers of the game when he arrived at Headingley in 1998. Under his guidance, they won their first major trophy for a now unimaginable 21 years when they lifted the Challenge Cup the following season.

More importantly, he instigated a fundamental change in the culture of the club which has served them well ever since.

Leeds, for all their financial clout and tradition, had become something of a gentlemen's club, too often a late-career refuge for players who had already produced their best rugby elsewhere.

They always had flashy backs, but the word within the game was that they had a soft underbelly and that their forwards were never quite tough or aggressive enough.

Murray, generally known as Muzza, changed all that. He built a pack around players like Anthony Farrell and Darren Fleary, unpretentious forwards who worked ferociously hard and enjoyed hurting people.

Murray had a theory that there were basically two types of player. "There's those who want to fight all the time off the pitch and want to be your mate on it," he said once. "Then there are blokes who are nice guys off the field, but absolute bastards on it. I want as many as possible of the second sort."

The other major plank in Murray's strategy at Leeds was bringing through young players at a club which had rarely excelled at growing its own. He launched the careers of the likes of Chev Walker and Leroy Rivett and was the major influence on the development of a destructive, raw-boned second-rower named Adrian Morley.

With the equally fearsome Barrie McDermott added to the mix, Leeds were, probably for the first time in their history, regarded as the toughest team in the league.

In 1998, Murray's first season in charge, they reached the first-ever Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford, losing 10-4 to Wigan.

A year later, there was no stopping them at Wembley in the last Challenge Cup Final before the redevelopment of the old stadium. They hammered the London Broncos 52-16, with Rivett, one of the "wild card" players Murray liked to employ alongside his Iron Guard, scoring an unprecedented four tries. Leeds wore black armbands and observed a minute's silence for him in their next match following Murray's death from a heart attack.

The club's chief executive, Gary Hetherington, paid tribute to his impact during his two seasons there.

"He was very popular and so professional in everything he did," he said. "He was an outstanding coach and mentor and he cared about all aspects of rugby league."

Apart from his successes at Leeds, Murray had a long and varied career in his native Australia. He was a scheming stand-off of the old school with Parramatta and South Sydney, before his first coaching job with the reserves at Penrith.

His first post as a head coach was with the Illawarra Steelers, but he lost that job when he became embroiled in the Super League "wars" of the mid-90s. He became coach of the Hunter Mariners, Super League's "spoiler" club on the doorstep of the established Newcastle Knights.

Despite local hostility, Murray put together a side good enough to reach the final of the World Club Challenge in 1997, although they were beaten by the Brisbane Broncos.

The Mariners were culled as part of the truce in the Australian game, but Murray had already agreed to coach the Rhinos.

After Leeds, he moved into one of the plum jobs in Australia, taking the Sydney Roosters to their first Grand Final for a quarter of a century, although they were beaten by Brisbane. He also started a new trend – or revived an old one – by recruiting Morley from England, with great success.

His last club role was with the North Queensland Cowboys, but he had also coached New South Wales in State of Origin, Fiji in the 2005 World Cup and the Australian Women's team.

Murray also returned on occasion to his other profession as a maths teacher. This year, he was due to coach the Brisbane-based Wynnum Manly Seagulls, but stood down after his first heart attack.

His premature death deprives the game of one of its most popular characters, who managed to combine being friendly and approachable with the general public with being firm when he needed to be – with his players.

Those were the principles that changed the direction of one of the game's biggest clubs. For that, Graham Murray will continue to be remembered, in Leeds and beyond.

Dave Hadfield

Graham Murray, rugby league player and coach: born Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 6 January 1955; married Amanda (one daughter); died Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 28 July 2013.

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