From The Couch: Round 20

Filed in From The Couch, NRL by on July 29, 2013


Vale, Graham Murray: It was with a significant deal of sadness that word filtered out on Sunday evening that Graham Murray had passed away. He was only 58.

I never knew Murray. Never met the fine coach. I am too young to remember his playing days. But I have always felt an affinity with Murray, a great rugby league person and an outstanding coach.

In 2008, after being sacked by North Queensland, I penned the following:

“The nice guys rarely last in rugby league and it is a credit to Graham Murray that he has survived as long as he has. Murray has been maligned in many quarters throughout his time as a head coach in Australia but the simple reality is that he rates as one of the best coaches of the modern era.

“Though he never won a premiership, Murray overachieved with every team he had. One would hope that Murray again coaches in the NRL though that would appear to be a mug bet by anyone’s calculations. As for the Cowboys and the disgruntled playing group, well, only time will teach them the irreparable mistake they have collectively made in turning on Murray.”

I back down from none of those assertions. Murray really was one of the best coaches of the last 25 years and without question, to my eye, the best coach not to win a premiership. He is widely regarded as the greatest coach three clubs ever had and did a wonderful job at two others.

After a solid playing career as a wiry and creative halfback with Parramatta and South Sydney – and after winning a reserve grade title with the Panthers – Murray got his break with the Illawarra Steelers in 1991, a club that had won three wooden spoons and had never finished higher than ninth in their nine years in the top grade. In his first season, they improved to eighth and in his second year, he guided Illawarra to the finals for the first time, as well as bringing home the club’s first piece of silverware in the pre-season Tooheys Challenge. The Steelers never finished in the bottom half of the table under Murray, who became a victim of the Super League War when he joined the rebel camp after the club stayed loyal.

When the Super League season played out in ’97, Murray took over the Hunter Mariners. The hodge-podge side didn’t make the finals but they played the Broncos in the World Club Challenge final and lost just twice at home during the regular season, recording wins against the all-conquering Broncos and Raiders.

When the premiership reunited, Murray was forced to England, where he took over a Leeds side who had not won a major piece of silverware in two decades. In his second season, Leeds won the Challenge Cup, etching himself into the club’s folklore

He returned to Australia in 2000 and immediately took the Sydney Roosters to the Grand Final, an incredible effort at a club that hadn’t been to the decider in two decades and could not make it under Phil Gould.

Driven out by internal politics after just two seasons, Murray took over at the Cowboys and was superb in eight seasons. For the first time, the Cowboys were a force, making the semis for the first time in 2004 and the Grand Final in 2005. And for the first time, the Cowboys were able to attract quality players like Johnathan Thurston, knowing the club had a top-notch coach.

Even his stint with New South Wales, where he lost two series 2-1, will be remembered by history not as a disaster but the beginning of Queensland’s greatest era.

He retired with a win record of 50.8 per cent in the premiership, taking two teams to Grand Finals and improving every team he took over.

Make no mistake: rugby league has lost a truly great figure in Graham Murray and at such a tragically young age. Vale, Graham Murray – the game is better for your contribution and worse for your passing.

The Halfback Championship Belt: While reading Grantland not long ago, I came across a very interesting piece that looked at who the best quarterback in the game was over a particular period and who succeeded him and so forth, looking at, essentially, who was widely regarded as the top dog. So like pro wrestling, one guy is the champ until another beats him. As always, it is fun to take such an idea and put it in a rugby league context. So we will do that, firstly, with halfbacks. We will d this for the Origin era. The rules are fairly simple – stats, rep jerseys, awards all factor in but none are apportioned any particular weighting. Rather, they are merely an indicator of who the top dog really is.

1980-81: Kevin Hastings – In 1980 it was a wide open field with Tommy Raudonikis and Greg Oliphant playing the opening Origin, Raudonikis and Steve Morris playing for the Blues in the interstate series, Raudonikis wearing the Australian jersey and Steve Mortimer leading the Bulldogs to the title. But Kevin ‘ Horrie’ Hastings was named the Dally M Halfback of the Year and was outstanding in guiding Easts to the Grand Final. In ’81, Mortimer was the representative elect (Peter Sterling played Origin) but Hastings won the Rothmans Medal and the Dally M Halfback of the Year and clearly maintained the title. He also won the first two of three straight Rugby League Week Player of the Year awards.

1982-84: Peter Sterling – Hastings was still very much in the picture in ’82, winning his third consecutive Dally M Halfback of the Year gong and guiding Easts to the preliminary final. It appeared as if Bulldog Steve Mortimer would be the man to take his mantle, representing the Blues in three Origins and playing for Australia in all the early season Tests. But Sterling was a dominant force in guiding the Eels to their second straight premiership and played all five Tests on the end-of-season Kangaroo Tour. The Bulldogs’ ninth finish counted against Mortimer. Sterling was unchallenged in ’83, winning the Dally M Halfback of the Year and a third straight premiership with the Eels, along with the man-of-the-match award in Origin II. Steve Mortimer made a strong case in ’84, playing Test football, replacing the dumped Sterling during the Origin series and guiding the Bulldogs to the premiership but Sterling kept the Eels near the top of the ladder and was named Dally M Halfback and Rugby League Week Player of the Year.

1985: Steve Mortimer – After knocking at the door for many years, Mortimer certainly took over the billing as the top in ’85, captaining Canterbury to the premiership and New South Wales to its first Origin series victory. Mark Murray was the top choice Test halfback and Greg Alexander was a rookie sensation, winning Dally M Halfback of the Year, but ‘Turvey’ was the top No.7 in 1985.

1986-87: Peter Sterling (2) – Sterling bounced back with a vengeance in ’86 and maintained the billing as the top halfback for the next two seasons. Sterling was named the Dally M Player of the Year and Rugby League Week’s Player of the Year in both seasons, winning the Rothmans Medal in the latter. He won the Clive Churchill Medal in ’86 as Parramatta’s best in their most recent Grand Final win. He played eight of Australia’s nine Tests in ’86, as well as Australia’s only Test in ’87, and was the New South Wales halfback in all seven Origin matches, winning three man-of-the-match awards.

1988-89: Allan Langer – Newcomer Allan Langer emerged in 1988 to usurp Sterling, who was still playing outstanding football. Sterling played the three Ashes Tests but Langer played the final four after injury got Sterling, starting in the World Cup final, also playing a starring hand in the State of Origin series with a man-of-the-match showing in the opener and winning Dally M Halfback of the Year in Brisbane’s first season in the premiership. Despite breaking his leg midway through ’89, Langer remained as the top-regarded halfback in the game after a dominant Origin series and Brisbane’s fast start to the year.

1990: Ricky Stuart – Peter Sterling won the Rothmans Medal and Allan Langer started the season as Australia’s No.1 choice halfback but 1990 was Ricky Stuart’s year. The Raiders No.7 helped guide New South Wales to a series win after the state’s lowest ebb, he starred in the Raiders’ successful premiership defence and was a key figure in Australia’s Ashes win on the ’90 Kangaroo Tour.

1991-92: Allan Langer (2) – Ricky Stuart guided the Raiders to a third consecutive Grand Final but Langer reclaimed the mantle of the top halfback, leading Queensland to victory and playing in all three Tests against New Zealand. Enigmatic Bulldog Ewan McGrady won the Rothmans Medal and Greg Alexander the Dally M Halfback of the Year but the former had emerged from nowhere and nobody considered Alexander better than even Stuart. It was all Alf in ’92 though, the Broncos halfback skippering the team to their first title and winning the Rothmans Medal, claiming the Clive Churchill Medal and playing all five Tests. The only downer for him was losing the ’92 Origin series, though he did kick the winning field goal in the second clash.

1993-95: Ricky Stuart (2) – The Stuart-Langer battle edged back Stuart’s way in ’93 despite Langer taking the Broncos to the premiership and retaining the Test No.7. Stuart was the Dally M Player of the Year and the Rothmans Medal, the dominant player during New South Wales’ 2-1 Origin win (winning Man of the Match in the opener) and had Canberra primed for a premiership tilt before breaking his leg in the second last round, an injury that saw the Raiders go bang-bang. Stuart carried his outstanding form into ’94, carrying the Blues to a third straight Origin series and the Raiders to their third title before eventually ousting Langer for the Australian No.7 on the Kangaroo Tour, where he helped Australia retain the Ashes after losing the first Test with Langer at the helm. The Super League War struck in ’95, rendering both Langer and Stuart ineligible for rep football. Andrew Johns emerged as a star of the future, winning the Bronze Dally M, while Paul Green won the Rothmans Medal and Adrian Lam starred for Queensland. But Stuart and Langer remained the pre-eminent No.7s in the game with Canberra’s outstanding ’95 season keeping Stuart in front.

1996-97: Allan Langer (3) – Stuart passed up the title for the last time in ’96 with Langer again reclaiming the crown after the Raiders No.7 managed just two games. Jason Taylor won the Rothmans Medal and Geoff Toovey was the No.7 in New South Wales’ Origin series but Langer won the Dally M Player and Rugby League Week Player of the Year awards to reclaim the title of best halfback in league. In the split ‘97 season, the Broncos were far and away the most dominant team and Langer was again the star, holding off the emerging Andrew Johns.

1998-2003: Andrew Johns – After a decade dominated by Allan Langer and Ricky Stuart, Andrew Johns took the belt in ’98 with a spectacular season and would hold the title undisputed until 2002. Johns played a key role in leading the Knights to the ’97 title and it lifted his game to a new level, the Knights halfback taking out the first of two consecutive Dally M Medal-Rugby League Week Player of the Year award doubles. Johns would be named the Golden Boot winner in ’99 and 2001, would win five straight Rugby League Week Player of the Year gongs (1998-2002), the 2002 Dally M Player of the Year and the Clive Churchill Medal in the 2001 Knights’ premiership success. Such was his form over the five-year stretch that Johns would be named the halfback in the Centenary Team of the Century. Halfback play has never been as brilliant. Injuries caught up with Johns in 2003 but he still remained the dominant halfback in the game, leading the Blues to a series victory and Australia to a 48-6 Anzac Test win before a neck injury ended his season early.

2004: Craig Gower – The loss of Johns to injury in 2004 left a significant void at halfback and no really dominant player emerged. Gower played the Origin series and featured throughout the end-of-season Tri Nations and after supposedly being the winner of the unawarded 2003 Dally M Medal winner, he gets the nod over Brett Kimmorley, Queensland halfback Scott Prince and Dally M Halfback of the Year Brett Finch.

2005-11: Johnathan Thurston – The Johnathan Thurston era began in 2005 after his move to the Cowboys. In a sensational season, Thurston won the Dally M Medal and took North Queensland to an unlikely Grand Final appearance, as well as taking over the Queensland halfback jersey. He would go unchallenged as the leading halfback in the game until at least 2011. Matt Orford would win the 2008 Dally M Medal and Scott Prince had an outstanding 2010 season but Thurston was regarded as not only the top No.7 in rugby league by a significant margin but the top player. Even in seasons where the Cowboys struggled, Thurston excelled at Origin and Test level. He won the 2007 Dally M Medal and the 2011 Golden Boot gongs to confirm his standing as the top half.

2012-13: Cooper Cronk – Thurston’s shift to five-eighth following the retirement of Darren Lockyer saw Cooper Cronk take the mantle of the game’s top No.7. Cronk had won the Dally M Halfback of the Year award in 2011 and backed it up in 2012 before winning the Clive Churchill Medal in the Storm’s premiership triumph. He steered the Maroons to an eighth-straight Origin series and was excellent in the Anzac Test win, while he led the Dally M Medal count before voting went behind closed doors.

Let’s Get It Right: There was plenty of bleating north of the Murray this week when it was revealed that the AFL had been pre-warned about the Essendon drugs fiasco and had set about protecting the club and the game by cutting a deal with ASADA. All the while, the NRL has hung Cronulla out to dry, while the Sharks have done little to help themselves. While the ethics of it all can be debated, the one certainty is that the AFL has proven themselves so much more adept at playing politics than the NRL. This goes from cutting political deals to securing government grants to getting politicians at their major events. The NRL needs to get so much better at this if we are to take our place at the top of the Australian sporting landscape, the game’s rightful position.

Props for Trying: There is very little about the Parramatta Eels that gets me going but I must admit I did enjoy them opening the game against Canterbury with a short kick. It was apparently planned all week. Which makes the shocking execution of it so much worse.

Fun Fact #1: Ricky Stuart has won 13 of his last 59 matches as an NRL coach, a win rate of 22 per cent.

Fun Fact #2: Over that time, Stuart has lost 27 matches by 13 points or more, suffering heavy defeats in an incredible 45.7 per cent of matches.

Rumour Mill: There is plenty of speculation linking Canberra halves Anthony Milford and Josh McCrone to the Brisbane Broncos. Milford is reportedly homesick and has a get-out clause in his contract while McCrone has been offered big money to make the defection. Losing either would be a big blow to the Raiders. Expect Canberra to make a play for Warriors hooker Nathan Friend. The club is in desperate need of a hooker and Friend is the best on the market. Peter Wallace is reportedly hoping for Penrith to return to the table with a big-money offer. Canterbury, for some unknown reason, are supposedly close to signing Reni Maitua. Clint Newton is set to return to the Knights in 2014.  

What I Love About … Pat Richards: It is extremely exciting knowing Pat Richards is returning to the NRL next season after his incredible snap field goal last week from near-on 50 metres and close to touch. It has been talked of as the greatest drop goal ever and perhaps it was. It was one hell of a nudge, don’t mind that. Hopefully Mick Potter has plenty of long range plans for the booming boot of Pat Richards.

Funniest Eels Moment of the Week: Oh, where do we start this week? It is tough to go past the fact the Eels were down 16-0 before they had touched the ball against the Bulldogs on Friday night, a moment that had me more excitable than Buzz at Bliss Erotic Massage. But listening to Ricky Stuart talk post-game, saying he was saving Jarryd Hayne for the World Cup was right in the mix.

Betting Market of the Week: Rather than play Jarryd Hayne for Parramatta, Eels coach Ricky Stuart would rather:

$3.00: Save Hayne for a session at Bliss Erotic Massage.
$2.50: Save Hayne for diving into the pool of money Parramatta pay him.
$1.80: Save Hayne to hand out how to vote cards at the upcoming election.
$1.65: Save Hayne for the Universe Rugby League team to tackle any intergalactic challengers … whenever that may be.

Power Rankings:
1. South Sydney 15-3 (1)
2. Sydney Roosters 14-4 (2)
3. Melbourne 11-6-1 (3)
4. Manly 11-6-1 (4)
5. Canterbury 10-8 (6)
6. New Zealand 9-9 (6)
7. Newcastle 9-9 (5)
8. Cronulla 10-8 (8)
9. Canberra 10-8 (9)
10. Penrith 8-10 (10)
11. Brisbane 7-11 (12)
12. Gold Coast 8-10 (11)
13. St George Illawarra 6-12 (13)
14. North Queensland 6-12 (14)
15. Wests Tigers 6-12 (15)
16. Parramatta 3-15 (16)

Combo XIII of the Week: With Manly and the Tigers finishing the round this week, we look back at the best players to represent Manly and either Wests, Balmain or the Wests Tigers. All represented Australia with the exception of Kevin McGuiness.

1.John Dorahy (Western Suburbs/Manly)
2. John Ribot (Western Suburbs/Manly)
3. Kevin McGuiness (Western Suburbs/Wests Tigers/Manly)
4. Terry Hill (Western Suburbs/Manly/Wests tigers)
5. Ian Schubert (Manly/Western Suburbs)
6. Des Hasler (Manly/Western Suburbs)
7. Steve Martin (Manly/Balmain)
13. Jack Sinclair (Balmain/Manly)
12. Paul McCabe (Manly/Balmain)
11. David Gillespie (Western Suburbs/Manly)
10. Les Boyd (Manly/Western Suburbs)
9. Ray Brown (Western Suburbs/Manly)
8. Ian Thomson (Manly/Balmain)

Correspondence Corner: Anonymous + Manly Fan, Cherry’s short kick-off grubber was sensational. I expect he is a regular reader. Apologies for not noting this in the piece.

Great work in compiling the rankings, Witty Reference. No question that Cameron Smith was the best in the series and Mitchell Pearce the worst.

Anonymous, interesting insights and I don’t disagree on Benji’s power-control situation. I do think he has been convinced by his manager thought that he could make more money playing rugby, particularly in Japan.

Anonymous, Campese took the wrong option nearly every time and showed no ability to organise. That is how he got three Willie M votes.

The Coaching Crosshairs: Neil Henry has been dumped after the Cowboys suffered yet another disappointing loss. Henry did little to enhance his reputation in five seasons with the Cowboys, a major disappointment after the club went all out to lure him from Canberra. He is unlikely to land another major gig in Australia. The question now goes to his replacement. Kevin Walters this week quit his role as the Storm assistant, suggesting he has been sounded out by one of the Queensland clubs. There is sneaky speculation that Paul Green could be the man though. Green has a good record in the Queensland Cup and has been working with the Roosters this year. My money is still on Walters though.

The Life and Times of the Special Needs Penguin: In a day of incredible milestones, Ben Pomeroy played his 150th first grade game and scored his 50th NRL game. It was a tribute to both his coaches and his teammates that they have persisted with a player who cannot catch a ball for so long.

Game of the Year Nomination, Round 20: New Zealand-Melbourne, 30-22. An absolute cracker of a game with the Warriors maintaining their outstanding record against the Storm. The Warriors jumped the gun with Shaun Johnson having a sensational game. They let a good Melbourne back into it but the Storm –who nearly always take their chances – blew it. The Storm are warming to something but the Warriors are coming like Phar Lap. A top class clash.

Beard Watch: Manu Vatuvei has long been a fine exponent of the beard and it is wonderful to see him still looking like a mini schnauzer.

Watch It: In tribute to the great Graham Murray, we go back to the 1992 Tooheys Challenge final between Murray’s Illawarra Steelers and the Brisbane Broncos. Played at Apex Park in Dubbo, the Steelers won their only trophy 4-2 as huge underdogs. Watch the highlights of the clash here, paying particular note to Murray’s hat and ‘stache combo.



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  1. dragon_eyes91 says:

    Do you think the dragons have recruited well enough for next year. If not what other positions should they be looking to fill