Interview: Shaun McRae

Shaun McRae with Peter Gentle
Shaun McRae with Peter Gentle
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WHEN the down days started to extend a little further into his week, casting further inexplicable darkness, Shaun McRae finally realised something was not right,

One of rugby league’s most recognisable and amiable figures, the gregarious Australian coach found himself somehow at odds with the sport he loved so dearly.

Sinking amid a heavy cloud, it was hardly the position a head coach – quite literally, a leader of men – could sustain for long and eventually he succumbed.

That was at Salford City Reds almost 12 months ago.

Tonight he returns there, albeit to the club’s new stadium and not their previous dwellings at The Willows, but, also, fittingly, as a new man himself.

Refreshed, re-energised and thriving in his latest role as Hull FC director of rugby, McRae admits the last year has been a crucial voyage of discovery.

He initially took sick leave from Salford in March with a stress-related illness and, having failed to return, there was a permanent and amicable parting of the ways two months later.

Once his recovery was attained, though, the 52-year-old was handed the task of taking command of Hull FC’s entire football operation by new owner Adam Pearson last October and is back to his old self.

Having recommended Wests Tigers assistant Peter Gentle as the new head coach, McRae is overseeing a major overhaul of the way the East Yorkshire club is run, bringing his vast experience to bear without that intense 24/7 pressures of being the main man.

“I’m really enjoying it,” McRae told the Yorkshire Post, ahead of Hull’s visit to Salford this evening.

“It’s totally different and away from the coaching side of things. I see it more as a mentoring role for a lot of people.

“I’m running the football programme and just giving people the tools to do their job, offering advice along the line at first team, academy and scholarship level.

“It’s much more administrative and it’s fair to say I’ve not really missed the coaching at all.”

On his departure after four years in charge at Salford, he says: “It was diagnosed as a stress-related illness. Apparently I’d had it some time but I never properly looked to alleviate it; I probably thought, like a lot of people, I was just a bit low.

“My problem, though, was I was staying low for days in a row.

“I guess we’re involved in a tough sport where no quarter is given and you just get on with things. Looking back, I probably should have put my hand up a bit earlier and asked for help but a lot of people didn’t really know about it. It’s difficult to understand even for your employer but there’s a lot more awareness now, even just 12 months on.

“We’ve come a long way as a sport to understanding mental health.”

McRae has played an active role in the State of Mind campaign, initiated last year after former Leeds, Bradford and Great Britain hooker Terry Newton, who suffered from depression, tragically committed suicide in 2010.

“I joined the board and offer my assistance wherever I can,” he says. “I’m not embarrassed by it. I’ve spoken at conferences about what happened to me and it’s important people have that openness and know they can ask for help.

“It just eventually wore me down and left me sick. It wasn’t the way I planned to finish my coaching career but after a period of time I realised I didn’t want to do that and wanted to change my life.

“When I did go see the doctor, went for some rehab sessions and got some rest, I felt terrific and I do now more than ever.”

A section of Salford fans hurled shocking verbal abuse at McRae after his last home game, a heavy 56-22 loss against St Helens, but he maintains: “I’m really looking forward to going back and seeing their new ground.

“I know I left after an illness but I made a lot of good friends there.

“It’s a very, very tough job at Salford. The expectations there are far too high from the club and sometimes the supporters; it’s a club that doesn’t spend the salary cap and does struggle financially. However, they never cease to surprise me how they sometimes come up with victories over the better-known clubs.

“I’m just hoping that doesn’t happen to us on Friday. I can remember huge wins against Saints and Hull while this current side will be buoyed by last week’s victory over Widnes.”

Hull head into the game with a solid start under their belts – an opening day draw against Warrington could have been more – while they overcame adversity to beat London 22-14 on Sunday.

“That game took a lot out of us,” said McRae. “Sam (Moa) being sent off with 20 minutes remaining meant we had to work overtime especially as Joe Westerman had already gone off injured too.”

Of course McRae, who under his agreement with Pearson is allowed to continue his work as one of Sky Sports’ more insightful pundits, was once at the helm of the Black and Whites himself.

He was head coach of Hull between 2000 and 2004 having earlier reaped massive success with St Helens but he insists there is no desire to interfere with Gentle’s running of the team.

History suggests directors of rugby do not always sit in harmony with the head coaches but McRae said: “I speak to Peter every day and have no intention of getting back into coaching.

“If Peter comes to me with a question I’ll give him an answer but I don’t stand over him. I don’t even sit with him at games.

“After 16 years as a head coach and 30 in the business I’m pretty well qualified without having to do that and I’m not a coach coming through the system who wants someone else’s role.

“My role here is to help these people do their job to the best of their ability and, five months in, we’re enjoying things.”

Whether or not the new order can inspire a first Super League title is the question on the lips of success-starved Hull supporters.

“We’ve got to steady the ship,” he says. “It’s not for me to be critical of previous regimes – I know how tough the job can be in rugby league and the day-to-day pressure of everything we do.”