League: Mark of a bygone time

By Dylan Cleaver

The question to Mark Graham, by most people's reckoning the greatest player to pull on a Kiwis jersey, was simple: "When you were playing, did you ever think about tomorrow?"

The answer was unequivocal: "No, never."

Graham was in New Zealand this week for the premiere of the movie Broke, produced by his son Luke.

It tells the story of a washed-up superstar of league, BK, who poured everything he had into either pokie machines or the pockets of the booze barons.

The film uses footage of Graham in his North Sydney pomp, but it is not biographical. He might have had the ups and downs that most of us endure as we wind our way around this mortal coil, but he's never fallen.

After his playing career, Graham moved into coaching, including an unsuccessful stint as Warriors coach in terms of results, although the core of the players he developed went to the grand final in 2002.

Graham will admit to having business that will, in all likelihood, remain unfinished in terms of coaching but, for now, the 60-year-old is happy driving heavy machinery in the industrial city of Gladstone, whose port processes 50 million tonnes of coal per year, along with other goodies such as alumina, aluminium, cement, cyanide and ammonium nitrate.

"It's unfinished business but I'm over it, if you know what I mean," he says. "I know exactly how the current Warriors coaching staff are feeling, though, and the intense pressure they're feeling. At the end of the day, it's a game and nobody's died."

The former second-rower is very much a product of his times. As hard as a bag of spanners, Graham played through dislocated shoulders, broken arms, sprained knees and ankles and a multitude of head knocks. He reckons he's come out of it OK, although he recently had neck surgery after suddenly discovering in the smoko hut he could no longer lift his arms above his shoulders.

"I reckon I've been really lucky because there's no limitations as to what I'd do. If I had to throw my head at somebody to stop them scoring a try, I'd do it."

It's not embellishment. The curse of being far and away the best player on some average teams is that you were a marked man. Log on to YouTube and watch the highlights of Kiwis tests of the mid-1980s. Both Australia and Great Britain went out of their way to take Graham out of the game knowing they were a long way towards victory without the talisman on the field.

It was brutal, quasi-sanctioned violence.

He did it all for an annual salary of around $35,000 - his contract at Norths meant he was always paid $1000 more per annum than the second-best paid player - and a nine-to-five job in a tyre shop.

Ask what he thinks about today's players who earn half-million dollar salaries, have access to myriad support staff and still get into the sort of trouble Broke portrays, and Graham offers empathy, not antipathy.

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"I was lucky I worked. I had other interests," he says. "These poor buggers today, they can't even go for a drink because, if someone gives them a gobful, they can't get up and slap 'em because they would have insulted somebody. They can't do any of the stuff we used to."

Graham loved the social side of league, so it was ironic he was temporarily stood down from the Norths captaincy in his first season because the board informed him that he didn't spend enough time in the pub with his team-mates after the game. Problem being that Graham had come from a winning environment under Graham Lowe at Brisbane Norths and he hated losing, which North Sydney did a lot.

"I'd get a case of beer and a packet of cigarettes and go home and drink and smoke the lot. I didn't want to see them until training on Tuesday because it took me that long to get over it.

"That's the thing. I never did it for money. I've never done anything in my life because of the money."

Graham was courted by several clubs in his heyday but stayed loyal to the Bears, a club famous for winning just one title, in 1922.

Big-money neighbours Manly-Warringah came calling, with Bobby Fulton, one of rugby league's self-appointed Immortals, leading the recruitment drive. Graham met Fulton and some Manly bigwigs and was appalled at how rude they were to the people around them.

"I was offended they would behave like that in my presence. If I was in the restaurant and not with them, I would have walked over and told them to shut their [bleeping] mouths.

"I walked out thinking I'm not playing for those pricks," Graham recalls. "Anyway, I get a call a while later and it's from Fulton. He says, 'What will it take to get you here?' In those days $35,000- 40,000 was a big contract. So I said $90,000.

Fulton's reply was along the lines of: "Who the f*** do you think you are?"

"I'm the sort of bloke who'd need $90k to play for a [bad word] like you," Graham told him.

Kiwis rugby league legend Mark Graham. Photo / File.
Kiwis rugby league legend Mark Graham. Photo / File.

He patched things up with Fulton in later years but never played for Manly. It probably cost him a premiership - Manly won in 1987, Graham's penultimate year at Norths - and a few bob, but when he finally left what was then the Winfield Cup, he did so with his dignity intact.

Graham is a man of contradictions. He's a staunch Catholic - the sons to his first wife are called Luke, Paul and Matthew, the latter committing suicide in 2000 at age 13 - yet he's struggled with the "until death do us part" of the sacred vows of marriage, having been married three times.

He was a bit of a ranter as a coach, famous for his mic'ed-up spray at Ali Lauitiiti, when he is heard to bemoan him standing around like a "half-sucked fat". Yet today, he is so quietly spoken, you get the feeling he's surprised somebody still wants to hear what he's got to say.

Graham has a treasure trove of stories, not all of them printable in raw form, like the time he and a few Sydney-based Kiwis were so angered by the attitude of their New Zealand-domiciled team-mates, they tied a couple of them up and dealt to them.

"The sort of stuff you'd get put into jail for now."

It worked, Graham laughs.

Different times, same bloke. And unlike the title of his son's movie, unbroken.

- Herald on Sunday

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