BRIAN McDERMOTT insists he has “absolutely no idea” how he became one of the most successful coaches in Leeds Rhinos’ history, revealing he always expected his entire working life to be serving his country with the military.
Ahead of Saturday’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup final with Castleford Tigers, the 44-year-old admitted lifting the famous trophy at Wembley would be the “icing on the cake” for him.
He has twice led the West Yorkshire club to Super League glory and also claimed the 2012 World Club Challenge but the Challenge Cup has proved elusive.
Leeds, of course, have lost all six Challenge Cup finals in which they have featured since last triumphing in 1999, a record sequence McDermott hopes to at last bring to an end this weekend.
However, despite his reputation as one of the finest coaches in the game, the fiery former Bradford Bulls prop concedes he never envisaged being in such a position of prominence.
McDermott, in charge when Leeds were beaten at Wembley in 2011 and 2012, was a Royal Marine until the age of 23.
Asked if he was ever tempted to stay, he replied: “Absolutely. I’m sat here now with this (Leeds) badge talking to you and I’ve absolutely no idea how I got here.
“I wasn’t a good player as a kid, and I’m not being modest, I just wasn’t good.
“It was a bit too physical for me, actually. I was one of those kids where everyone else was getting in the shower baring all their hairs and I was still in there wearing underpants at 18 years old.
“I was a late developer but I was in the military and I loved it. I thought it was great and I was going to stay in there forever.
“I came out after five years and started playing rugby league. I still wasn’t good then but I was really fit because I had been in the (Royal Marines) boxing squad.
“Peter Fox signed me up at Bradford not because I was any good, just because I was big – and he loved his big men. Fast forward 20 years and I sit here as Rhinos coach. I have no idea how.”
It is rare for McDermott, who succeeded Brian McClennan at the end of 2010, to speak publicly about his Armed Forces career.
He served in Northern Ireland and, also, during the first Gulf War in 1991 before becoming part of a formidable Bradford side that soon took Super League by storm.
His military experience has, in part, shaped his coaching beliefs.
“It may give you an edge but it can also hamstring you and be a ball-and-chain because all Royal Marines are so black and white,” continued the Yorkshireman.
“That’s wrong and that’s right – and if you keep doing wrong, you get filled in, kicked out or shot.
“If you keep doing things right, you stay alive and you protect each other. Life was so simple back then.
“Now I’m in a job which is all grey isn’t it? But I will always be a Royal Marine and I’ll never ever stop being that. That’s who I am but I’ve got to come into work and maybe quieten that down a bit.”
McDermott – who won the Challenge Cup as a Bradford player against Leeds in 2000 – overcame some testing times during his debut campaign at an expectant Headingley before they became the first side to win Super League from fifth.
“Certainly, in terms of what can be achieved, 2011 was a tough year but nothing compared to what I’ve been through with the Marines,” he added.
“If you want to work hard, you can achieve anything and I’m a big believer in that.
“That sounds a bit wishy-washy but it’s true. If you’re willing to make enough sacrifices, you can achieve anything you want.”
Leeds need no reminding of that on Saturday as they prepare for a latest attempt in what has become such a frustrating competition for players like Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, all garlanded so often when it comes to Super League.
“I want to win it, of course I do, but I don’t think I’ve got a right to win it,” said McDermott, echoing the sentiments of his squad.
“We’ve got to play well and I’ve got to coach well building up to it.
“If we can all do that and then we get Cas on game-day and get a bounce of the ball and a couple of refereeing calls, it could literally come down to that.
“You can track back a try sometimes to a bounce of the ball or a call from the referee.
“That’s not to say you blame it on that – you can still deal with it – but quite often on game-day in a Challenge Cup there are some unfortunate events that happen.
“Some of it is in our hands, of course it is, but a lot of it you’re hoping things go your way.”
Although it is Castleford’s first final since 1992, they drew with Leeds just last month and are level with them in the table to illustrate their obvious threat.
Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington has shrugged off Australian reports linking Rhinos hooker Paul Aiton with a drugs investigation into his former club, Cronulla Sharks.
Seventeen current and past Cronulla players have allegedly been offered reduced suspensions if they admit to doping in 2011, when Aiton was there.
But Hetherington called it a “non-story” and said: “ASADA (the Australian anti-doping agency) have had absolutely no contact with the club, the player nor the RFL. There’s been about a two-year investigation over there and those players have been very much part of that investigation. Paul Aiton hasn’t been one of them.”
Castleford prop’s Wembley dream: Page 23