‘The Don’ of rugby league

There would be few more respected and popular men rugby league has produced in the last century than the much-travelled Don Furner (snr). He mentored two sons who are prominent in the NRL, Test players, bush footballers and always has time for so many no matter who they are.

As David Furner has added many miles to his footballing life over recent years, he has appreciated even more the positive influence his father and mentor Don Furner (snr) has had on so many.

His travel log pales compared to what Don, 84 and finally grounded in a nursing home in Canberra, encompassed.

Perhaps no man in the game has covered so much territory, geographically and career-wise, than his father.

He was born in Condobolin, raised around Balmain in Sydney, played for Australia from Toowoomba, also played (and mostly coached) in Mackay, Roma, Tumbarumba, Junee and Queanbeyan; took the Roosters to a grand final in Sydney, was inaugural Raiders coach; coached Australia to an undefeated Kangaroo tour, became chairman of Australia’s selection panel, was CEO of the Gold Coast Seagulls, coached Fiji in the 2000 World Cup and spent time in charge of the ARL referees.

David, after growing up in Canberra and following in dad’s footsteps to become an international and coach the Raiders, spent three years as Cowboys assistant coach and is now in Sydney as the
Rabbitohs assistant.

Whether in Mackay or other parts of north Queensland, in Sydney or bush towns in NSW or while playing at Wigan or Leeds where his dad’s ’86 Roos were based, David continually comes across people who go out of their way to say what a pleasure it was to have known or been coached by his father and what a pure gentleman he was.

“You appreciate your father as your dad anyway but the more I have been involved in footy I appreciate the privilege of being his son in rugby league,” says David.

“The further I travel, especially during my three seasons at the Cowboys, and meet different people who speak so highly of dad and how he’s helped their careers or played some part of their lives, the more I can understand his love of the game, coaching and the people it throws up.

“It’s an honour and privilege to be involved because the game can take you to some wonderful places if you respect it. Dad instilled that in us early, since the first year of the Raiders when I was ball boy, Don [current Raiders CEO] was doing the stats and our and the McIntyre families were around the club for a long time.

“What did he most teach me? Probably honesty and treating people decently.

“One thing he told me sticks out – ‘remember, when people come up and say hello, be conscious of the impression on those people when you talk to them; it might take up five minutes or your time but it might be a memory of a lifetime for those people’. ”

Yet one aspect of Don Furner’s eventful and successful life is generally known. And the full details unravelled, literally, in 2011 in the wake of the devastating floods that hit Queensland.

David’s brother-in-law had to lift some old ‘lino’ floor in his Brisbane home and came across newspaper packed underneath including a 1953 article and photo of his father competing for the Australian heavyweight boxing title in Brisbane. Furner, who fought eight times in his career, lost the fight to Queensland champ Cec Meredith by a knock out.

“The article was quite well preserved and I enjoyed reading it; it’s a favourite keepsake along with a black and white photo of the 1955-56 Kangaroos dad toured with.”

David still has Don’s boxing silks from his Leichhardt Stadium days in 1950 and his son Kyle last year wore them in an amateur bout in Cairns in a wonderful nostalgic experience. It’s another example of the impact of Don Furner snr enduring well past his active days in sport.

It all began in the Balmain juniors. In 1951 Don played President’s Cup (under-21s) as an 18-year-old and, at 19, he joined Ken McCaffery at Southern Suburbs in Toowoomba. He spent five years on the Darling Downs, representing Toowoomba 16 times in the Bulimba Cup. By 1955 he was a Queensland player (he played six games) and was selected for on the 1956-57 Kangaroo tour, making his only Test appearance in the second clash at Odsal.

He played at Mackay in 1957-58, went to Mitchell (Roma district) in ’59, was Tumbarumba player-coach in 1960 where he won the Group 20 premiership, won the Maher Cup as captain-coach of Junee in 1964 before moving to Queanbeyan United in ’65, finishing his playing career the next season. There, he coached the club to five grand finals and three premierships, headed to Sydney for three seasons as Roosters boss, taking them to the 1972 grand final lost to Manly, before returning to Queanbeyan where he coached until 1974 but still devoted himself to the Country representative sides (Seconds 1967-68,’74-75; Firsts 1969, ‘76-77) beyond that.

However, it was as Canberra Raiders’ coach in 1982 in their first six seasons that gave him wider profile, and he became mentor of current NRL coaches Ricky Stuart and Craig Bellamy.

The Raiders struggled for five years yet Furner attracted the talents of Queenslanders Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Gary Coyne and Steve Walters, developed locals like Chris O’Sullivan and brought Laurie Daley to the Raiders. In 1987, Wayne Bennett was co-opted as co-coach and the Raiders made the last grand final played at the SCG, going down 18-8 to Manly.

Says the game’s most successful coach of the past decade, Craig Bellamy who left Oberon to join the Raiders under Furner in their initial season of 1982, Furner’s influence on the club’s success should not
be undervalued.

‘The Canberra Raiders are a great club for many reasons and one of the main reasons is Don Furner,” he said. “He was the ideal coach to start a new club; he was patient but he also instilled a strong work ethic and insisted on the players being disciplined. Having a team that worked extra hard is a great foundation to build a new club on.

“Don also had a wonderful disposition with the players; strong when he needed to be but understanding that it was going to take time to build a strong club. A wonderful man, a wonderful coach; Don Furner will always be remembered as one of the Raiders’ most important recruits.”

While Furner, who was also secretary-manager of Queanbeyan Leagues Club for many years, stepped away from the club scene he retained the Australian coaching role he adopted in 1986 until 1988 (his record is 13 wins, 2 losses), then becoming head selector for a decade.

Men of League’s Monaro president and former Country and ARL referee Noel Bissett says Furner’s influence was evident in the teams he coached always “having respect for their opposition and being well disciplined”.

“My participation became closer with him when Don was appointed to be in charge of the NSW referees, along with Michael Stone, in the late 1980s and together they developed guidelines for referees which ensued a consistent approach was maintained.

“His outstanding success in rugby league is second to none and to add to this he is a perfect gentleman.”

Ricky Stuart, who grew up as a close mate with Don jnr (a junior teammate) and David, perhaps, can give the best insight into Don Furner snr.

“As a young boy growing up and playing football in Queanbeyan and the Canberra district, I was privileged enough to have some very accomplished and educated football intelligence surround me and give me instrumental advice towards my goals in life,” the current Raiders coach said.

“One of those people was Don Furner snr. If I wasn’t spending the night at his family home with sons Don jnr and David, old Don, as we called him, was at games watching me play for the Queanbeyan Blues or for St Edmunds 1st VX with Don jnr.

“Don always spoke strongly about training hard and was a straightforward, tough judge. I always believe that if you have good people you can trust in your arena it’s smart to take advice, then it’s up to you how you use it.

“When you find comfort in a person’s advice in life, as I did with Don, it is usually advice from a source that is experienced and considerate.

“The rugby league community in our district was very fortunate to have Don snr involved and I feel I am a very lucky man I listened to the advice of Old Don.

“In 1984, I rang and asked Don if Dad and I could come and meet with him and John McIntyre [Raiders CEO] to discuss some decisions I had in front of me.

“I had the opportunity to repeat school and attempt to make the illustrious Australian Rugby Union Schoolboys team which was touring Europe at the end of the year, playing in the Five Nations Schoolboys teams, or accept a contract that John McIntyre had put in front of my father and I for the following season.

“Don, being always very direct to the point, said ‘go away, play schoolboys, become a Wallaby and then come back and see me; you are still very young with plenty of time on your side’. So I took his advice and I am so glad I did.

“The next time I met John McIntyre some four years on, as the 1988 season started, we shook hands on a deal. I left the office of ‘JR’ that day and became a Raider, which has taken me on a journey I could not have imagined at the time.

“I owe a lot to Old Don,” he concluded.

These days, Don lives at the Mirinjani Community Care complex in Weston, ACT, and would welcome visits from old friends.

This article first appeared on menofleague.com