The Canberra rugby league community is in mourning today after the passing of Don Furner Sr, one of its most respected and important figures.
Mr Furner died on Monday night after a long illness. He was 87.
As a coach, Mr Furner steered the Canberra Raiders through the start of its golden era from 1982 to 1987. He was head coach until the end of 1986 and took the team to a grand final in 1987 with co-coach Wayne Bennett.
The Raiders released a statement acknowledging the death of their inaugural coach and life member.
“Furner’s wealth of experience as a coach in country football, together with his unmatched ability to spot raw talent, was invaluable in the Raiders’ testing early years,” the statement said.
“He remained unperturbed, steadily putting together a squad that surprised the league world when it almost made the semi-finals in only its third year. His recruitment of Mal Meninga in late 1985, which then attracted so much talent to the club, was a masterstroke.”
Mr Furner was born in Condobolin in 1932 and had an impressive rugby league career, playing for a range of clubs in Queensland and NSW, including Souths (Toowoomba), Roma, Junee and Queanbeyan.
He represented Queensland on eight occasions and toured England with the 1956-57 Kangaroos.
He was forced to retire through injury and then embarked on a highly successful coaching career, taking Eastern Suburbs to a grand final in 1972.
Locally, he led the Queanbeyan Blues to a remarkable 10 premierships in 13 years.
Queanbeyan Blues’ captain and former Raider Terry Campese said Furner was one of the most respected people in rugby league in the region.
“He was a big part of a lot of players’ careers and he was instrumental in putting the Blues on the map and also the Raiders, so it’s very sad news for both clubs and the whole community,” Mr Campese said.
Sports commentator Tim Gavel said Mr Furner, along with Les and John McIntyre, played a pivotal role in establishing rugby league in Canberra and Queanbeyan.
“Don came to Canberra with the philosophy of winning a premiership in the club’s first five years and he certainly played a big part as a coach and mentor to so many players,” Mr Gavel told Region Media.
Mr Furner was integral to the Raiders’ push to enter the NSW Rugby League after being recruited by club patriarch Les McIntyre to add genuine credibility to the bid.
“In a matter of a few years, he had laid the foundations of the club for the long-term future – foundations based on open, attacking football, hard work and mateship,” the Raiders said.
Raiders’ chairman Dr Allan Hawke also paid tribute to Mr Furner, saying he had the unique distinction of excelling in multiple roles in rugby league.
“Don Furner Sr was a fundamental piece of the architecture in putting our club together,” Dr Hawke said. “He distinguished himself as a player, an exemplary coach and then as an administrator.
“Very few people would have the gift to excel in all the facets of rugby league, but Don Furner Sr did.”
Mr Furner had two sons. Don Furner Jr is currently the Raiders’ chief executive officer. His other son, David, was a former head coach of the Raiders and played in the 1994 Canberra Raiders premiership team, winning the Clive Churchill Medal.