THE WRAP: NRL round 21

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD
THERE were maybe 50 photos, flashed up on the screen the way they do things at funerals these days.
The priest, father Frank O’Dea, had done a good job of setting the tone as a “celebration”, telling members of the Brisbane congregation that they were barred from praying for a NSW victory in next year’s State of Orgiin series.
The pictures were happy ones; Graham Murray with the pre-season challenge trophy he won with Illawarra, on vacation in Europe as a 20-something, next to a fresh-faced Mark Geyer celebrating a lower grade premiership at Penrith, laughing at NSW Origin training.
But right in the middle there was a frame depicting two hands. One was Murray’s with a hospital nametag visible, the other belonged to his wife Amanda.
The scope of this column has always been fairly broad. To write about anything other than the funeral of Graham Murray, at St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Bulimba on Monday at 11am, just didn’t feel right this week.
The photo was on the screen for only a second but there was a gasp from those who recognised it for what it was. Just a minute earlier, Murray’s 19-year-old daughter Cara had first read a tribute from her mother and then her own eulogy.
To quote either here would serve no purpose. They were nothing less than gut wrenching. Murray had been just 58 when heart problems took his life less than a week earlier.
There wasn’t much to celebrate.
The jerseys of many of the teams in which he had been involved had been laid on his coffin at the start of the service, held on a brilliantly sunny day in Brisbane’s east.
Matt Parish had a Balmain jersey, Tim Maddison a Hunter Mariners shirt, Ronny Palmer the Roosters, Royce Simmons NSW, Darryl Brohman Penrith, John Cross Illawarra, Marc Glanville Leeds, etc, etc.
I’ll list some other people I saw there: Brad Godden, Gary Roberts, Robbie McCormack, John Grant, Wayne Heming, Tom Raudonikis, Laurie Daley, Steve Gillis, Denis Fitzgerald, Geoff Carr, Johnathan Thurston, Frank Stanton, Jonathan Crowe, Paul McGregor, David Riolo, Kelly Eagan, Dean Ritchie, Zane Bojack, Peter Psaltis, Greg Davis, Steve Johnson, Shaun Timmins, John Coates, Josh Alston, Ben Davis, Michael Hagan…
Some of those names you may not recognise. They are people I know – players, officials, reporters. There were many other faces I’ve seen from a distance for decades.
But for that hour, whatever it was we did that had brought us into contact with Muzz was irrelevant. Johanathan Thurston wasn’t a football star, Jonathan Crowe wasn’t an ex-iron man, Zane Bojack wasn’t a sideline eye.
We were all just people who knew him, and who he knew.
read on

THE BIG ISSUE: #53

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
IN these pages and others, throughout the winter months, you’ll read about the underbelly of rugby league.
It’ll be broken contracts, feuds between coaches, administrators and players, payments in brown paper bags, media bans, shoulder charges, fights, horrible injuries and people being sacked.
And it will be increasingly easy to believe that everyone in the game is bitter, greedy, compromised, violent, shady or just plain cranky.
But it’s not like that. Certainly, Graham Murray was not like that.
The last time this writer followed a team so closely he watched parts of some games through the gaps between fingers held nervously over his eyes, Graham Murray coached that team.
It was 1992 and Muzz’s Illawarra Steelers had made the finals, meaning I would rather quit my newspaper job than be sent to the Olympics during the play-offs.
We had the sort of relationship where it was difficult to know where on the record stopped and off the record started, and it got us into trouble occasionally. Murray instinctively sought out people he thought had a sense of fun and was naturally wary of those he thought had none.
His success with the Steelers was built on making the pub a compulsory stop after every training session, even if you didn’t drink. Players were so loyal to him they didn’t consider leaving – until the competition expanded in 1995 with all the money that entailed.
I was fortunate enough to be there for the preliminary final in ’92, the World Club Challenge final in ’97, at Wembley in ’99, the 2000 grand final and sat next to him when the Cowboys returned to Townsville for grand final week in ’05.
They were big, big moments in his life and – as colleague Dean Ritchie wrote on Monday – were experiences he was eager to share with friends who will never get to scale those heights. His memories became ours’.
It’s wrong to say Murray never experienced conflict, although there was probably less of it than most other coaches who achieved so much. Like many people who are intensely sociable and outwardly positive, he challenged those who he saw as introducing negativity to his life needlessly.
If you wrote a story before a big game that he didn’t like, or was involved in a conversation with someone who had criticised him, he’d challenge you about it. He didn’t want the great life rugby league had given him to be tarnished.
The night Melbourne was stripped of two premierships in 2010, I watched the evening news with Muzz, his wife Amanda and daughter Cara at their home in Townsville.
Barbecuing sausages that night, it was apparent that Muzz was happy with his role in Queensland rugby league administration, comfortable with his legacy and satisfied that none of the love and affection that enveloped him could be taken away.
He was at peace with a life well spent. Forget the daily intrigue – that’s what Graham Murray gave rugby league and what rugby league gave him.
He should have had many, many more years to savour it.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 20

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD
1. SHOOT THE (DALLY) MESSENGER
LAST week’s tiff between Wayne Bennett and Ivan Cleary over comments at a press conference highlighted a persistent cultural problem in rugby league which was further exemplified when Sonny Bill Williams took Willie Mason high at Hunter Stadium on Sunday. For all the progress the game has made with a gleaming new integrity unit, recognising the role of women and stamping out racism, there is still an obsession with what you can get away with rather than what you actually do. If Cleary’s comments led to Kade Snowden being suspended, then isn’t it the match review committee Bennett should be angry with, for allowing itself to be influenced by the media? And whether or not Mason should or could have jumped straight to his feet yesterday, isn’t the real issue whether or not Williams actually collected him in the head? It’s almost as if it’s OK to accuse people of bias as long as you paint that bias as a fact of life and direct your anger at the person who tried to influence them.

2. A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS AS A BIG TREE FALLS
“HEY, shoulder!” a lone Newcastle Knights voice shouted after Willie Mason took the ball up 15 minutes into yesterday’s match at Hunter Stadium, before being felled in a tackle which featured Sonny Bill Williams coming in over the top.The voice, from an unidentified player standing directly behind the collision, was summarily ignored by referees Jared Maxwell and Gavin Morris. It’s only when Mason failed to regain his feet that the whistlers asked video referees Steve Clark and Justin Morgan to check “possible contact from Williams”. There was definitely contact; Williams later questioned Mason’s motivation in staying on the turf. Whatever the case there, it was apparent to this reporter the incident would have been missed – until Monday morning at least – if Mason had simply got to his feet and played the ball. Maybe it would have been picked up on Monday morning. You’d hope so.
3. THE PRICE IS… APPROPRIATE?
DOES the NRL have a responsibility to make grand final tickets affordable for rank-and file supporters? Newspaper and magazine mailbags and social media pages are awash with complaints about the price hikes for tickets to this year’s showpiece. One fan complained that tickets which were $55 in 2006 are now $165. Gold seats are $225. Other blue ribbon sporting events charge similar prices and try getting into the Super Bowl or FA Cup final for anything like that. The grand final will sell out and generally speaking, the NRL is entitled to charge whatever the market supports. But everyone from FIFA to Bon Jovi knows it’s possible to avoid being painted as greedy by offering a limited number of low-cost seats through a ballot system. The League would do well to consider this option next year.
4. COMMENTATORS RUNNING THE ASYLUM
DARREN Lockyer had an interesting idea in his newspaper column at the weekend. He said video referees should turn up the television when deciding on possible tries to hear what the commentators think. At first glance, this may appear simple commonsense – but of course, it’s not. The test which is all too seldom applied to many of the ideas that get thrown around in rugby league is: if you didn’t know what the game was and who the people were, what would you think? If someone is making a major decision in another sport, or another walk of life, because a media person said it might be a good idea, how would that look? Imagine if boxing judges or AFL goal umpires listened to the transistor radio for inspiration, or police read the paper before laying charges. Always ask the question: how would it look from the outside – and can it be exploited?
5. VALE MUZZA
GRAHAM Murray should have outlived newspapers. He was only 58 when his life support was due to be turned off yesterday and the news is difficult to come to terms with. Many of the things one says in this situation – about him being ‘larger than life’, ‘a positive influence on people’ and ‘loving life and people’ – sound hollow because they are said too often. But there really wasn’t anyone like him in my 28 years of covering rugby league; he was a man who engaged with people one way or another, who was never apathetic. “He taught me the value of honesty,” former Great Britain forward Barrie McDermott Tweeted. Murray coached Illawarra (where he had success by making it compulsory to go to the pub after training), North Queensland and NSW but he did it all so recently that it should have been years before I had to write anything like this. All sympathy to his wife Amanda, his family and his army of friends. This is a terrible time.

6. RANKLING OUTSIDERS
THE contrast between in attitudes of rugby league fans towards casual sports followers couldn’t be more different in Australia and England. British leaguies were mortified and humiliated on Saturday when a Challenge Cup semi-final, shown live on national television, end in a 70-0 win by Wigan over London. Not only was the scoreline indicative of an ailing professional game, considering both teams are in Super League, but having a comparatively small northern town thrash the capital also embarrasses the game’s national pretentions in front of the very people it is trying to impress. Compare that with the Origin fighting ban, which hardcore NRL fans believe was prompted by the concerns of those who watch the sport only infrequently. Australian league supporters not only have no regard for what these people think but actively resent them for sanitised the game.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Six Long Years Of Trying

By STEVE MASCORD

WE’VE got to be careful when we talk about turning points in State Of Origin history.

In 2006, Origin was said to be endangered because NSW had won three series in a row. In a strange sort of way, the fact no-one is saying that now – after six consecutive Queensland series victories – is a testament to how maroon the entire Origin concept is.

Origin was invented for Queensland, to make Queensland competitive, and as long as the Maroons are going well the series is serving its purpose in the universe

But it must be said we are at a crossroads right now – even if it’s a backblocks crossroads. If Origin II this month marks the beginning of the end of the Queensland dynasty, let this story stand as a record of all that has been done in the cause of ending it.

If the dynasty continues, let this serve as a cautionary tale…. we have taken a few tabloid-like observations about what the Blues have “resorted to” in a bid to topple the Maroon juggernaut since 2006 and then we’ve applied the broadsheet treatment to each of them, talking to former NSW coach Graham Murray, Brian Canavan – the man who put together the “Blue paper” a couple of years ago aimed at bringing the coachroaches up to speed – and former prop Mark O’Meley.

Here it is: for want of a better title, we’ll call it Six Long Years Of Trying.

CHOPPING AND CHANGING

SINCE 2006, NSW have used 77 players to Queensland’s 45. The Blues have fielded 14 halves pairings, compared with Queensland’s four. Principally, of course, this has a lot to do with one thing – losing. “It is, when you lose you are expected to react and try something different,” says Murray, quoting the saying ‘winners have parties, losers have meetings.” But Canavan noted ingrained differences between the states that perpetuate this phenomenon, regardless of results. “Sometimes positives can become a hindrance,” he says. “Fifty-three per cent of players in the NRL are eligible for NSW, compared with 26 per cent for Queensland. Queensland have a much smaller pool and greater quantity can confuse the issue. The Maroons have fewer selection dilemmas. When you have to choose the same players each year, they get greater experience at that level. In the 2010 series, NSW had a total of 87 caps (worth of experience) compared to 158 with Queensland. Although Queensland had a smaller pool, there has been really, really good quality since 2000 and they have played together at that level.” In NSW, too, there is a more diverse media and a denser administrative structure with more opinions being thrown around. “Looking back, I guess it does affect you,” says Murray. “Everyone wants to have their say.” So, has this stopped? Should it stop? “The answer is unfolding as we speak,” says Canavan, who explains that a huge treasure trove of statistical data was used to pick this year’s Blues side. It is provided by the clubs – we’re talking GPS stats that show what players do in games and at training. All clubs co-operate, he says, “some more than others” but the information on what the players do in NSW camp is then returned to the clubs so players aren’t over- or under-worked. The same information is being collected by NSW teams at Under 16s and Under 18s level. In other words, there are more hoops to jump through to get into the NSW team now, more evidence about why players should stay, so they should begin to get more experience together.

BRINGING THE BIFF/INTIMIDATION

“BILLY Johnstone once said to me,” recalls Murray, “that there’s no such thing as an ambush in State Of Origin. You know what you’re in for.” Murray paints of a picture of the biff bringing itself back at Origin time, rather than it being part of any pre-meditated strategy. “You get guys like Steve Roach come in and talk to the players. I never got to State of Origin as a player but you listen to those guys and … it’s pretty full-on.” This year there was a belief NSW planned to outscore Queensland rather than focus on aggression – although this was never plainly stated by the coaching staff. Nonetheless, the Blues managed just 10 points in Mebourne, with kicks playing a big role. “I had Wayne Pearce, Phil Gould and Ricky Stuart as coaches and Muzz is right – they never said that just aggression was going to be our approach to a game,” said O’Meley. “Everyone had their own jobs.” The way forward? Evidence from Origin I and the way it was controlled would suggest the days of the biff are numbered. O’Meley disagrees. “I think sending (Michael) Jennings to the sin bin was a mistake and it won’t happen again,” he tells us from Hull. “Generally speaking, you don’t get sent off or get 10 in Origin. If it starts to happen, your average Aussie fans will switch off because that’s why you watch it, because it’s different to club football.”

ADMINISTRATIVE PLOTTING

THE editor thought trying to get Israel Folau banned from the 2010 series because he was going to AFL was a potential act of “sabotage” by NSW against Queensland. But the ARL has a long-standing policy of selecting teams with the future in mind, and leaving out those who defect. It is not the act of “sabotage” that is the question but rather the fact that ARL policy most often resides south of the border. It’s much easier for the QRL to defy ARL policy than it is for the same NSWRL officials who came up with it to do so. “That’s right, it’s policy,” agrees Murray. “I was just at the schoolboy championships and the NSW CHS schools acknowledged ‘all the boys who have gone on to represent their state and country’. Greg Inglis was there. He played CHS. There’s an opportunity there to work a lot harder on those rules, that policy, to make it black and white.” Certainly, Ricky Stuart is swimming hard against this tide by insisting on picking his team a day early, opposing the match in Melbourne, selecting 18th and 19th men and last year asking players to sit out the club round before the three decider. The anomalies will be further removed by the new forms young players must fill in outlining their eligibility, making it harder for the states to “recruit” each others’ players. “There are seven criteria questions you must answer,” says Canavan, “and if you four answers match up, that’s the state you must play for.” O’Meley, in 10 appearances for NSW, never thought the support from the NSWRL was wanting. “In the Australian team, yes,” he said. “Queensland did seem to get the blokes that wanted. But not in the NSW team. We’ve got our own problems in NSW anyway, with Country blokes playing for City and all that.”

COPYING QUEENSLAND

“THE biggest thing that NSW have done is appoint a fulltime coach,” says Murray. “For me to coach against Johnathan Thurston was not pleasant. I know for a fact that Michael Hagan found the same thing with coaching against Andrew Johns. And Craig Bellamy against his Queensland players. It’s just that you know what they can do to take you apart.” Canavan’s ‘Blue Paper’ had many facets.  He says NSW was “conceptually” the same as Queensland but in practice, “you’re dealing with a different backyard”. He says the Country Rugby League initially stood by and watched the reforms, which involved identifying potential future State of Origin players at a young stage. “We’ve now integrated the Country Rugby League,” he says. “Ricky will go to the Country centres, meet their coaches, talk to them – and he’s very impressed with what he’s seen.” Stuart speaks to coaches of NSW under age teams and talks to them about what sort of player he is looking for, what sort of football he wants to be playing, much like a club coach. “And we have benchmarking,” explains Canavan. “For instance, Paul Gallen is the benchmark for props. He pushes out 250 metres per game, 30 tackles, covers maybe six kilometres in attack and defence. So a player coming up through the NSW Under 18s in that position needs to work towards getting figures like that.” O’Meley sees other important aspects in which the Blues can ape their rivals. “You look at a player like Ashley Harrison – he may not stand out when you watch him play a club game,” the former Bulldog, Bear and Rooster says. “But he comes in and does a job for Queensland. In NSW, because there’re so many players to pick from, players get overlooked if their team is further down the ladder. Tim Mannah, he might be able to do a good job for NSW but would not make the team because of where Parra’ are on the table.” NSW’s High Performance Unit – “a global trend in sport,” says Canavan – has been meeting weekly for months. Overall, Canavan says he is happy with the implementation of his document, with the involvement of the NSW Institute of Sport the only block not in place. “And that comes down to funding,” he adds. “You’ve got to hand it to Ricky, he’s really rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in.”
COMPLAINING ABOUT REFS

MURRAY argues that both sides whinge about referees, depending on what the result of the game is. The states have less influence on appointments than they used to. “I think it’s a tit for tat thing,” Murray says. “You say things you think are relevant. I think Mal Meninga has had his say from time to time as well. You’ve got to be careful, you don’t want to say too much but there are little things here and there where you think you might get something out of it.” O’Meley and Canavan leave this to coaches. “As players, we were pretty much muzzled, we couldn’t say anything there,” O’Meley said. “They might like certain styles of referees. The last game, I can’t say much about the referees. It was just the video referee. Was it Sean Hampstead? He’s usually good. He just made an honest mistake I guess. “

MEDIA BANS AND STRATEGIES

IN Origin, losing teams in the modern era often say very little afterwards. But current coach Ricky Stuart hit the headlines this year when he specifically instructed his players not to comment to the waiting media. “In 2006, we’re winning for most of the game and then one loose pass and we get beaten,” Murray says. “I couldn’t talk. I copped a bit of a basting in the media for not saying much after the game but I’m not sure what they expected, for me to sit there all cheery? You’re devastated. It’s unrealistic to expect me to sit there and give them all the stories they want.” But dealing with the media is actually a written part of the description of the NSW coach’s job, Canavan reveals. “There’s a fair  bit of it in the document, actually,” says Canavan. “The NSW coach has to be accessible to the media. He has to be the face of the NSW Origin campaign and we are lucky that we have people like Mal and Ricky to be the face of Origin.” Why do NSW need a cheerleader as coach? Murray thinks he can explain it – and it cuts to the heart of everything discussed above. “I played for Parramatta and I hated Manly,” he says. “I didn’t hate Redcliffe or Brisbane Easts. We had to bring guys from NSW together, who had that rivalry, whereas in Queensland they always hated us. I’m not saying they didn’t have a rivalry or dislike amongst themselves – but they always had someone down here they hated more.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK