Mark McLinden

‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Mark McLinden in 2008.

You were born with a hole in your heart. How has that affected your rugby career?
I have a split in the mitral valve as well as a hole in my heart and I was told at 15 that I shouldn’t focus on having a rugby career at all. It means that I need antibiotic cover if I have teeth out or even if I get a bad cut and my mum used to have to carry penicillin on her when I was playing when I was younger. Even now I have occasional chest pains which worries me but it’s checked out every year and the speed in my mitral valve is normal.

Weren’t you a touch rugby player when you were younger?
Yes I was. The whole family played. That’s my mum, dad and two brothers and my sister. Even by 1997 I was still playing and was picked to play for the Under-18 national team but [Canberra Raiders coach] Mal Meninga wouldn’t let me go because he wanted me to stay at the Raiders. I also played rugby union but the Raiders were so big in Canberra that I wanted to play for them so I switched codes and I got the chance to play for the Junior Raiders as a 15-year-old. That meant wearing the full Raiders kit which meant a lot. I also played for the Australian Schoolboys two years in a row and for the Junior Kangaroos.

You came into a team which boasted some of the finest players to play the game – Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart and Bradley Clyde.
Pretty daunting! I remember someone asking me when I was going to take my posters of them off my bedroom wall. I also struggled to think of them as mates and do things like call them by their nicknames. At training I’d be shouting “Daley!” or “Mullins!” when I wanted the ball because, as a supporter, I always thought of them by their surnames. Brett Mullins got hold of me during training one day and put me straight but it took me a while to get used to playing alongside those blokes.

What was it like to play for Meninga?
Again, daunting! He was a relatively new coach but a cult figure and a legend. I remember being at school one day and there was an announcement that I had to go to the sports office where someone was on the ‘phone for me. It was Mal and he told me he was coming to my house to take me to a trail game against Hunter Mariners. I rang my mum and she rushed home to clean the house! It was a dream come true and the trial went well. From then on everything was different. I got into the side early in 1998 and the only games I ever missed until I left were when I was injured. I was never dropped.

What were the highlights of your Raiders career?
Putting on the jersey and looking around the changing room at all the blokes I was playing alongside. I also remember a game against Manly that year when we were 20-odd points down and I came off the bench and helped turn it round. I got a lot of exposure out of that game. 2003 was a good year too – we got so close to the Grand Final, losing a semi-final to the Warriors by a point.

When did you first consider coming to England?
After that 2003 season. Castleford came in for me and I was set to join them but I spoke to the Raiders again who persuaded me to stay, which I did. I signed a three-year deal but there was a clause in there saying I could leave for England. 2004 wasn’t as good at the Raiders and I ended up going to London after just a year.

The Raiders were criticised for playing an ugly brand of football under Matt Elliott.
People called us unglamourous, that’s right. We played very much in the middle of the park with Simon Woolford doing a lot of dummy-half work and Brad Drew in there too. Melbourne are criticised for their style too but it was effective for us and has been adopted by other teams.

Is Super League more entertaining?
Now I’ve been exposed to both, I’d say it is. It’s far less predictable that the NRL and players chance their hand more. But it’s maybe not as effective. If all the teams were to play each other, I think the NRL would still come out on top.

Why did you choose to go to London?
Other teams were interested in signing me but London’s pretty much the capital of Europe and I really wanted to experience it. A lot of my friends had travelled when they were younger but I went straight from school to rugby and had missed out on that so this was a chance to make up for it and where better to go than London? I knew a bit about the London team as well because I could remember the games against the Raiders in 1997 and I remembered them getting to Wembley in 1999. As well as that, I liked the idea that I’d be anonymous in a city like London. In Canberra, the players were recognised all the time but, away from the ground, I’ve been recognised about five times since I’ve been here!

In your first year the club had financial problems and ended up announcing the Harlequins move.
I wasn’t too fussed by it all but there were concerns that we might be kicked out of the comp and some of the players were very worried. In the end, it went down to a Super League clubs’ vote and we scraped in. I enjoyed my first year a lot. The boys pulled together and we got through the difficulties. As for the Harlequins move, it might not have transformed us on the pitch in the sense that we haven’t started winning trophies but it’s helped massively with junior development. In Brentford everything felt very temporary but things are different at the Stoop and we’re doing things right.

How highly do you rate the young players at the club?
I’m not going to put pressure on them by naming names but I think a couple of them will play for England within a couple of years.

How good a coach is Brian McDermott?
I’ve not had a better coach. It was great news for the club that he signed his new deal. He’s instilled good values and habits here. I remember his first meeting when he took over mid-season in 2006. He handled it very impressively and just got on with things. His outlook on life is great.

How is your injury situation?
I won’t play again this season. A few weeks ago I thought I was in the frame to come back this year but I had another reaction to the injury in training and have decided that it would be smarter to concede and concentrate on next year.

How do you see your future?
I’ve got a year left on my deal. I’m 29 now and I’m not sure how many years I’ve got left in me. I miss home to be honest. At the end of next year, I’ll have been here five years. So I’m not sure yet what the future holds but I’ve loved my time here.

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