Saturday Interview: Big Mac looks to new selfless generation at Leeds Rhinos

PLENTY TO PONDER: Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott at this week's media event at Old Trafford.
PLENTY TO PONDER: Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott at this week's media event at Old Trafford.
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BRIAN MCDERMOTT never looks comfortable at the traditional press conferences ahead of the finals that have become so commonplace during his tenure as head coach of Leeds Rhinos.

You sense, understandably so, he wants to be somewhere else and this week was no different.

Like all the other protagonists at Old Trafford on Monday, he dutifully obliged with the countless interviews and staged photographs, no doubt having to repeat the oft-stated same answers about the ensuing battle that lies ahead.

However, this is certainly not the reason he got into rugby league, first as a rampaging prop with Bradford Bulls and, most latterly, in charge of their neighbours down the M62.

Media necessities are merely a small part of his enveloping role as the chief of one of the sport’s most successful sides.

McDermott will, instead, be most at ease – if that is at all possible with the hopes of thousands hanging on his team’s actions – when he returns to Manchester United’s famous stadium tonight to lead that side out against Wigan Warriors for the prize of First Utility Super League Grand Final champions.

His main target is to mastermind a victory over stellar opponents who are appearing in the showpiece for a third successive season, though, admittedly, by the time 6pm comes this evening, there is little more the 45-year-old can enact to influence the course of events.

Most of that work has been achieved in the 11 months since the last campaign ended.

This will be the Wakefield-born coach’s third stab at Old Trafford glory, having overseen Leeds’ triumphs in 2011, his first campaign after returning north from Harlequins, and again the following year.

Yet, of course, this time is different principally as the Rhinos are saying farewell to three legends among their ranks.

Captain Kevin Sinfield, after 19 distinguished years in the famous blue and amber, will head to Yorkshire Carnegie once proceedings end tonight while 37-year-old props Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai venture into retirement, their canons silenced to the elation of weary packs around the country.

Does McDermott harness the obvious emotion involved, then, ahead of kick-off or look to shrug it off?

“A bit of both,” offers the former Royal Marine, who will spend some of his off-season intriguingly taking charge of the USA national team.

“You wouldn’t ignore it but, at the same time, you wouldn’t bang on about it. It’s there. I think we’d be all liars if we said we’re not aware of that scenario.”

He has spent the last five years working with that triumvirate, harvesting six trophies along the way. McDermott also earlier starred alongside a 23-year-old Peacock as ruthless Bradford destroyed Wigan 37-6 in the 2001 Grand Final.

Asked how he will remember each of them once they have finished business tonight, he said: “I’ve said before: they are all so selfless. JP effectively goes and gets beat up for 80 minutes and does that so the team can be provided with a platform.

“Kev puts himself out there as a pivotal player on and, more importantly, off the field. He leads from the front, gives everyone a great steer on where we’re at, what we should be thinking, how we should be doing things… He’s such a smart fella in that regard, to his own detriment; the hours and hours he spends off the field doing work for the club and the team.

“And Kylie… he will pretty much do everything that is asked of him. He is the most successful overseas signing that we have ever had so they have all been very selfless for the club.

“They have also made a lot of sacrifices over the years to stay and continue playing for Leeds and continue playing our sport.

“They are all very fortunate but it is good they get their just rewards now – their last game being a Grand Final like this.”

One of McDermott’s greatest tasks as a head coach could be working out just how to replace such a vast bank of experience, power, leadership and craft.

“It’s an issue we need to address,” he admitted, Leeds having already invested in Australian props Adam Cuthbertson and Mitch Garbutt, who have flourished this year ahead of greater roles in 2016.

“Obviously all three of them are leaders as well. They’re not wall-flowers. They all have a fair bit to say in meetings and a fair bit to say about how we do things and we start to look to others.

“We’re not without leaders in this group – there’s Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Jamie Jones Buchanan – but we start looking at the next generation of true leaders, those who have a couple of hundred games under their belt and more.

“That’s the likes of Carl Ablett and Ryan Hall and such. I think the next generation is going to have to come through and do some decent stuff.”

But that is for later. The now sees Leeds able to achieve something even this pre-eminent club has not yet managed – a Grand Final, Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield treble.

For all the talk of being the “perfect” send-off for that aforementioned trio, it has been a little lost that it would also be a notable feat for McDermott, too.

What would it mean to him?

“I spend an unbelievable amount of hours in our office with (head of athletic performance) Jason Davidson, (player performance manager), Chris Plume and Barry Eaton (assistant coaches),” he said.

“And an unbelievable amount of hours with (chief executive) Gary Hetherington, (Carnegie director of rugby) Chris Gibson and (commercial director) Rob Oates.

“And an unbelievable amount of hours with people who work at Kirkstall, too.

“What you see here is just a representation of well over 100 people who work at Headingley and Kirkstall training ground.

“When we won the Challenge Cup, to see the delight in all their faces really brought it home.

“It’s not about me or the team. That’s not me being overly humble; it’s the genuine truth.

“We’ve been provided with a great environment at Leeds to work in and operate – one of the best out there.

“When we do win something you recognise those people, those that pretty much tip it for you; they are selfless themselves for providing such an environment.

“Should we win and should we get it done, it will be for everybody.”

It is that team ethic that underpinned Rhinos winning ‘Club of the Year’ at Monday’s Super League awards night, when McDermott was also named ‘Coach of the Year’ and gifted full-back Zak Hardaker claimed the prestigious ‘Steve Prescott Man of Steel’ as the competition’s best player.

But will that just be the appetiser for more to come?