By Jonathan Wilkinson
Graham Murray (1955-2013)
Graham Murray's Leeds Rhinos team were my first Leeds team. My first experience of going to matches might have been in 1997, but it wasn't till the following two years that I truly fell for both the game and the team. So it was with great sadness that I find myself trying to write about the man who started it all following his death from a second heart attack at the weekend.
I'm not here to give you the lowdown on his whole career. I won't be commenting on his time in Australia because I don't really follow the sport there enough to judge his impact on the teams he coached. Instead I will concentrate on his time at Leeds.
The start of the Super League era had not been kind to Leeds. After spending their way into trouble to try and keep up with Wigan, the club found itself in financial difficulties, struggling near the bottom of the league. It was at this time that Gary Hetherington and Paul Caddick took over the club, adding much needed financial stability to the club and also investing in a young exciting half back called Iestyn Harris. For the 1998 season, it was announced that Graham Murray would take charge of the team, and he set about awaking the sleeping giant of the game.
In the next two years, he led Leeds to the inaugural Grand Final, where they lost out to Wigan, before famously ending Leeds 21 year wait for a trophy by guiding Leeds to the 1999 Challenge Cup Final. Although the final turned into a record 52-16 win for the Rhinos, their run to the final couldn't have been tougher, as they overcame Wigan, St Helens and Bradford on the road to Wembley.
Murray's Leeds side was based around a fearsome pack, that would wear the opposition down before Iestyn Harris would be moved up from full back to stand-off to run riot against a tiring defence. That pack was demonstrated Murray's ability to turn average players into good ones; players like Farrell and Fleary through a combination of hard training, strict discipline, and creating a positive environment that resulted in a great team spirit.
An example of his discipline was his treatment of Barrie McDermott, who in a pre season friendly in 1998 against York, got sent off for fighting, followed by a 5 match ban. Murray judged that he wasn't - at that moment - right for the 1st team, so sent him on loan to Bramley. It was a move that shocked McDermott, who was an experienced player but demonstrated Murray's attitude perfectly; no matter who you were, if you didn't fit in with his vision, you were out. McDermott bounced back from this blow to star in the cup final a year later, scoring a crucial try that helped open the floodgates.
The team spirit was his real legacy. Gone were the days of the harmful cliques and soft core of the team, and in its place was a team that worked together, and was slowly turned into more of a family/best friends environment. The team is now reaping the results, with 6 Grand Final wins since 2004, built on a backbone of players who embody the team spirit that Murray helped to build at the club.
After two seasons Murray left Leeds to return to Australia. He left the club in a better state than he had found it in, in a place to challenge for trophies again, and with a structure that helped the club achieve its current success. More importantly he had won the Challenge Cup, a feat that still alludes the current squad.
So thank you, Graham Murray. Thank you for your part in building a successful Leeds Rhinos team, for awakening this great side. More importantly, from a personal point of view, thank you for your part in helping me discover the greatest game of all.
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