Rugby League Heroes: Mark Graham

In 2007, Mark Graham was named the greatest of all New Zealand international players. He earned 29 caps and played in the 1988 World Cup Final. The big second-rower was also selected in the all-time North Sydney Bears XIII and had a short stint at Wakefield Trinity.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
Beating Australia 18-0 at Carlaw Park in 1985 was pretty special. We had blokes who played in the local comp, and it was great for them. We had a great side, and it was a fantastic series. We’d lost the first two Tests. Graham took us into the city to meet the public before the third game. We were quite negative about that, but we were blown away by the way we were greeted, and it spurred us on.

How did it feel to be crowned the greatest New Zealand player of all time?
It was very humbling, and I was very fortunate to win it when you consider all the great footy players to have gone before me.

What do you remember of your Test debut in 1977 against Great Britain?
We lost. It was freezing cold and pouring with rain in Christchurch, and I came off the bench. The British forwards were always tough, but we had Lindsay Proctor and [Tony] Butch Coll, who passed away recently. I’m at that stage of my life when every few weeks I hear that someone I played or worked with has gone.

You started out with Otahuhu in New Zealand. What were domestic standards like?
Auckland was a vibrant Rugby League city, which produced lots of great players. It was always second to rugby union, but it was still well supported. The governing body would invite over a Sydney side. They would play the champion Auckland side, who would normally win at a packed Carlaw Park. The Auckland rep team had some incredible results back then. We beat Great Britain, Australia and France and declared ourselves world champions!

Why did you go to Brisbane to sign for Norths?
I was considering retiring. I was 24 and I was married. First born was on his way. I had done everything in Rugby League, so it was time to get stuck in and pay off the house. That’s what I thought anyway. I’d found fishing and was keen on that. Then I spoke to Graham Lowe, and he was saying how tough the Brisbane comp was. His team had come second last. Did I want to come over? I said I wasn’t sure. He said maybe it was too tough for me. I fell for the bait and went over! You got $500 for the season, $2 per minute if you won, and you got paid for training. But we had to pay for medical treatment – $7 per stitch. Sometimes I was out of pocket with all the stitches I needed!

You stayed for one year and won the Premiership. You’re best remembered there for an incident involving Wally Lewis. What happened?
There were two incidents with Wally. There was a pre-season game at Fortitude Valley’s home ground, and I knocked him down in a fight. His jaw got broken. I didn’t know who he was. Later in the year, we played Valley again in the semi-finals. He copped an elbow, and when I got up to play the ball, I noticed he was turning blue. He was taken off and we went on to win. Great player, Wally!

You toured Great Britain twice, firstly in 1980.
Playing Hull at Hull was memorable. We played at Boothferry Park. It was a magnificent surface and a wonderful atmosphere with all the singing. The fans were incredible. We won very comfortably, and we played excellently. The Hull people started to support us on the tour because we wore the same colours. The Test series was hard fought and finished all square. The Odsal game sticks in my mind. Butch Coll had a cheek injury, and the cut went right through to his mouth. I remember him sipping champagne in the bath and then letting it come out of his cheek back into the bath.

Why did you sign for North Sydney in 1981?
Several clubs were interested. I was in a restaurant with one club and found a lot of them to be very rude. I found out what their best players were on and asked for double. “Who do you think you are,” they said. “That’s what I’d need to put up with you lot,” was my reply. When I met the people from the Bears, I’d just been to church, and the two blokes from the club had also been in church, so that was a good start.

You made the semi-finals just once, in 1982.
We played off for the semis in another year but missed out, so, yes, we only made it in 1982. We had a really good side in 1982, but the club’s administration wasn’t the best. There’s a saying that the team won’t do well if the front office isn’t good, and that was the case with us. We had good coaches who everyone loved, but then they’d get sacked. I go to the reunions and it’s great to catch up with everyone.

Tell us about Olsen Filipaina.
Olsen was a guy who was just good at everything. We used to say he could probably make love standing in a hammock. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He’d come up with incredible moves. He’d only run through a move once in training because that’s all he needed. He’d start you on match point at tennis and still win. There was a journo who had been a tennis champion. Olsen gave him the same start, and he cleaned him up. He beat everyone at pool in the pub. There was nothing he couldn’t do. We weren’t surprised by how he played against Wally in that 1985 series.

Who were the best British players you faced?
Ellery Hanley, Des Drummond, Henderson Gill – Harry Pinner was a great player too. There were tough forwards everywhere. Good five-eighths and halfbacks. The Pommies were a really good side.

You refused to play for the Kiwis when Graham Lowe was sacked.
He dragged Rugby League kicking and screaming out of a dark hole, and then they sacked him. We couldn’t believe it and it was so disheartening. I told them I wasn’t going to play any more, but I came back for the 1988 World Cup.

Could winning that 1988 World Cup Final have been the big breakthrough for the game in New Zealand?
I think so, but losing didn’t put us back at all. It was all over by half-time. We never saw the ball in the first half. We had a few new blokes in telling positions, and we didn’t handle some of the big moments very well. We were so disappointed, but Rugby League in New Zealand continued to make huge strides, especially when the Warriors came along.

How did the move to Wakefield Trinity come about?
My manager put my name about. There were several clubs I wanted to talk to, and the best offer came from Wakefield. I was going into the unknown, I suppose. I’d heard of Wakefield and David Topliss, the coach. They’d just been promoted. There were some good players like James Leuluai, Steve Ella, the Zipzip man, Knocker Norton and Brent Todd.
One thing I always remember about English Rugby League was wingers getting man of the match for catching the ball and putting it down three times, and not the fella who had beaten four men each time to set all his tries up!

You left because of the way the club treated Brent Todd. What happened?
Brent did his knee and the club refused to pay him when he was injured. So I said I wouldn’t play until they sorted it. They thought I’d just shut up and do what I was old, but they didn’t help Brent, so I left.

How important is a players’ union in Rugby League?
I’m following the strikes in the UK as we speak. I think Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey from the RMT Union have been great. Your two candidates for Prime Minister are just attacking democracy by trying to close them down. I’ve always been a union man. Without the unions there are no paid holidays, sick pay, and so on. Unions are responsible for all the good things. The players’ union over here is important. When I resigned from the Warriors in 2000, new owners came in. That’s when the club changed its name from Auckland to New Zealand Warriors. The new owners tried to argue that the contracts were with the old club. The players called me, and we met to talk about it. We all agreed to meet again the next day with no one signing anything with the new club. Sadly the best player signed with them in that time, and I was so disappointed. But the players’ union still made a big difference. They took over and handled the situation brilliantly. I told the players the new owners may have the licence but, without players, they had nothing.
When TV deals are negotiated, the unions are at the forefront. Clubs get a lump sum of say $14m, of which nine has to be spent on the players. There are minimum payments for players. All our unions came from the UK. Rugby League started because rugby union wouldn’t pay them properly. I’m surprised your boys aren’t standing together.

Tell us about your experiences coaching the Warriors.
I took the job and said if I couldn’t get the side to the semis in two years, I’d resign, which I did at the end of the 2000 season. The Warriors had ten or twelve Kiwis when I went there. The coach I replaced was also the manager of a lot of the players. Lots left and I wasn’t left with much. I’d had seven years as an assistant coach to people like Graham Lowe, Tim Sheens and Bob Fulton, and I was ready. They’d come 15th out of 20 in 98, but then Adelaide and Perth were shut down. We lost a lot of senior Kiwis. The competition was reduced to 17 teams for 1999. We came eleventh and lost a bunch of games by one point. Stacey Jones broke his wrist and only played about six games in 2000. John Simon didn’t play much either. We won most of the games they did play in, but we came second last, which is when I resigned. We used a lot of kids who ended up playing in the 2002 Grand Final, which I was really pleased with.

Can the Kiwis win the World Cup this year?
I think they can. The side they played against Tonga recently was magnificent. Madge Maguire, the Kiwi coach, is obviously a fan of the spine – the fullback, the halves and the hooker. New Zealand have a bloody good spine. In the NRL, the top four have great spines and the bottom 12 don’t, so I think that’s a reason the Kiwis can do well.

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