Brian McDermott Speaks with Out Of Your League
20/03/2020 by Aiden McNicholas
Joining Super League’s ‘Out Of Your League’ podcast, Toronto Wolfpack Head Coach Brian McDermott illuminated several areas in his remarkable story with hosts Will Perry, Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan. Lessons from service with the British Royal Marines, analysis of an unmatched period of success as a Super League coach and a decision to take on the historic task of steering a fledgling team into the top division are all shared by McDermott throughout the wide-ranging conversation.
The full interview can be downloaded as a podcast or watched online by clicking here.
McDermott begins by taking an honest and revealing walk through a childhood not without its hardships; a journey the Yorkshireman once believed ended with the Royal Marines. At the age of 17, when given the choice of service length, McDermott opted to sign up for the maximum offered, believing the military to be his long-term future. While he did not serve for as long as originally intended, the years of training and overseas tours did change the way McDermott approached life.
“What it does, it gives you a unique way of approaching challenges and setbacks. When I joined the Royal Marines, such a small percent got through. We joined up with 64 guys and only 13 passed. That’s a huge fallout rate and it’s the same now; it’s so physically demanding.
Probably five days a week…. for eight months you are pushed to the limit every single day. As soon as you fall over and break, you’re gone. It’s a physical and mental challenge. It’s so demanding that you completely break. Then they build you back up.
I don’t mean break as in you completely give in; I mean it breaks the spirit of who you are or who you thought you were. Bear in mind I was 17. I didn’t know who I was at the time anyway. There’s no way I would’ve been able to do that at the age of 23 or 24.”
Instead, in his early 20’s McDermott took up Rugby League. Holding some experience in the sport as a child, he had not played at any serious level by the time he left the Marines. It quickly became an obsession and his first opportunity would come with Bradford Northern, now known as Bradford Bulls.
After McDermott forced his way into the Bradford side in 1994, Australian-born Tony Smith joined the Club as Head Coach at the beginning of the 1995 season and sweeping changes to the squad saw McDermott in the firing line.
“I was one of the blokes that they wanted to cut, Brian Smith said you haven’t got a contract and there’s no more money left so you’ve got to leave. We don’t want you. I said no, you’ve misunderstood. I’m your most dedicated player, you’ve got to sign me on. I’m not going to go. You’ve got to offer me something.
He said I could come and train for nothing and so I spent a season playing for no money to earn a contract. The back end of that 1995 season they said good effort, you’ve earned a contract. Nothing would stop me from turning pro. I just made that decision and I thought, well I can’t fail.”
That attitude of doing whatever it takes is in many ways what defines the career, both on-field and in the coaches’ box, of Brian McDermott. After carving out a playing career of over 250 professional fixtures including representing his country and winning a Super League title and a World Club Challenge, McDermott retired without a plan for the future.
Every step McDermott had taken in the sport to that stage was designed simply to get the most out of his ability, filling the gaps with determination and commitment. At the age of 32, an approach from former teammate Steve McNamara saw McDermott put in touch with Leeds Rhinos Head Coach Tony Smith and from there a new career was born.
“I never had any ideas of being a coach… Tony picked me up and I came on his staff. I was going to go initially as a fitness guy. A tip I would give to anyone is that you have to have a strong opinion on something within the game. You might be wrong, but you have to have a strong opinion. You can’t just say I’ll become a coach and have no opinion. I had some strong opinions about defence and I backed them up. I think Tony saw some worth in me and that’s when the journey started.”
That journey would eventually see McDermott take the top job at Leeds and become the most successful Super League Coach in history. During his time at the helm, the Rhinos claimed four top division titles, two Challenge Cup trophies and a World Club Challenge. In 2015, McDermott led Leeds to a historic treble, claiming the League Leaders Shield, League title and Challenge Cup within the same year.
While his success speaks for itself, it is McDermott’s brutal honesty and self-reflection that give an insight into his philosophies. Displaying refreshing candour, he is unafraid to delve into the flaws he works on as both a person and a coach.
“My biggest weakness as a coach is saying to group of men: ‘That’s your responsibility.’ If I get the right group of men, that’s my biggest asset. But my weakness is that I struggle coaching some 17, 18 year old lad who hasn’t had life experience, who’s Mum is still making him breakfast and washing and ironing his clothes.
As a coach I’m all for showing a guy how it should be done and I’m all for taking them through a process and a system and structure of how they should pass and catch and tackle. But once you’ve been shown a number of times then there is some responsibility on the player.”
Following a rocky departure from Leeds that saw him sacked midway through the 2018 season despite winning the League in 2017, McDermott joined the Wolfpack ahead of 2019, tasked with immediately leading the Club to Super League. Able to achieve this in his first year at the helm thanks to a remarkable 28-1 record, it is clear that McDermott’s passion for the game of Rugby League goes well past the results his squad is able to achieve.
“Being with Toronto is probably the best project you could ever get into. And I call it a project because it absolutely is a project. It was an easy decision for me to get involved. Do something which affects the game. I used to say to coaches when I was doing community coaching that we have all got the best and most important jobs in the world. Do something that affects the game.”
Possessing a relentless desire to strengthen the sport that welcomed him in almost 30 years ago, McDermott has grand ideas for the future and firmly believes that expansion is a big part of where the game must go.
“Rugby Union has the Six Nations and that’s a brilliant product and concept. It’s unbelievably well resourced, supported and watched. It’s also got the Champions Cup which is well supported and resourced. We’ve got nothing compared to that. So we need to be invigorated by some other means and I think a competition heavily played along the North of England isn’t the answer any more.
This isn’t my idea, but I do endorse it, the good, healthy Clubs from the UK with a couple of French Clubs and a couple of North American Clubs, that’s the comp. That’s not a mid-season competition but the actual comp.”