I met Steve McNamara for a Rugby League World feature shortly after it was confirmed that he was to be the new England coach in 2010 to discuss his life in the game and, of course, the job itself.
This year’s Four Nations will see the new England coach, Steve McNamara, working with his old mentor Brian Smith for the fifth time. Smith signed McNamara twice, for Hull and then for Bradford, and in the early 1990s, McNamara experienced a short stint in the St George lower grades when Smith was head coach. And when McNamara first took the Bradford coaching reins in 2006, Smith arrived in an advisory capacity to help him through those early stages.
So, with McNamara now in charge of England, it comes as no surprise that Smith, the coach of Sydney Roosters, will feature on his coaching staff.
IT was described in this very magazine a couple of months ago as a poisoned chalice, and it’s hard to disagree. Coming hand in hand with the coaching of any national side is the monumental expectation of instant success. We’ve been here many times before, and we all want to know whether Steve McNamara really is the coach to win us our first major Rugby League tournament since the 1972 World Cup when he leads England down under in this year’s Four Nations?
I meet the man himself at the Bradford Bulls’ new training facility, based in the grounds of Tong School in the city a few weeks after his appointment was announced by the Rugby Football League. McNamara will continue to coach the Bulls until the end of the season before becoming the national coach on a full-time basis. Clearly proud of the new venue and someone’s who’s obviously still totally committed to Bradford despite his new England job, he tells me, “Whoever gets this job here will inherit a great new facility and a great squad. We’ve got everything here, it’s up there with anything in Super League.”
McNamara’s journey in professional Rugby League began in 1989 with Hull FC, where he was signed by Brian Smith, whose influence on him, he claims, was immediate.
“It came down to me having to choose between Hull and Leeds,” says McNamara. “I remember being very fortunate to sign for Hull as a 17-year-old and going into an environment that Brian had started to create. To have someone like that as your first professional coach was great. First impressions count and I thought that was the way things were done in the game. It was also great for me to go on and captain my home-town club from the age of 21, although it was a difficult time for the club financially with people coming and going.
“I had a great time there and I’d grown up as a Hull fan from 1979, which is the year they went unbeaten in the old second division, through to the glory period of the eighties. It was a fantastic honour to play for them and captain them. I was at all of the finals – the Challenge Cups, the replays, the Premierships, all of them. I lived and breathed Hull FC. I was at the classic Wembley 1985 final – heartbroken again! – just like against Featherstone in 1983.”
“My dad was a regional coach of coaches,” McNamara continues. “He played briefly for Hull KR – about 20-odd games I think. He used to take the coaching courses and I used to tag along all the time. I was an east Hull kid, so supporting Hull FC was a strange one I suppose. The first game I remember going to was a Hull KR game – a game from the old Floodlit competition. Then my dad took me to a Hull FC game and, for whatever reason, I started to follow them. My favourite players were Steve Norton and Lee Crooks but it was an exciting period with the Kiwis – Gary Kemble, James Leuluai, Dane O’Hara and Fred Ah Kuoi – involved. Then Peter Sterling came over as well.”
For someone who was good enough to go on and play for his country, McNamara took up the game reasonably late, not playing a competitive game of Rugby League until he was secondary-school age.
“Kids start playing very early now and my lad plays under-8s but I didn’t play competitively until I was 11 or 12 which was quite late. You never know if you are or you aren’t a chance of signing for a professional club, but I managed to make it into the Under-16’s England side a year young and I obviously felt at that stage there was a chance.
“Meeting Brian Smith at that young, impressionable age had an impact,” he admits. “I was an apprentice builder and I remember being sat in the lobby with about 20 other 17-year-old kids. The foreman came and told us that Brian Smith was here to see me and the boys just laughed it off. But Brian poked his head around the door! He made the effort to come and see me out of the rugby environment, and he also met my parents. He went the extra mile visiting me at work and it intrigued me the lengths he went to see me in another environment. From then, I was interested in not only the playing side but also how it was put across to us.
“I went across to St George when I was 19 after Brian had gone there from Hull. I played lower grade and we trained late afternoon or early evening. I spent the days just sat in the offices at the club listening to the coaches and watched how they did things. I always had the passion to coach through my playing career and I used to help with the coaching at Skirlaugh where some of my friends played. I’d talk about what I’d learned from Brian the day before. It reinforced things to me and it maintained my interest.”
So, how does McNamara the coach look back at McNamara the player? “Too slow!” he laughs. “I wasn’t that big, that strong or that quick but I had a reasonable football brain. Some of the things I couldn’t do, the other players could, and vice-versa.”
McNamara joined the Bulls in 1996, again under Smith, and stayed for four seasons. He moved to Wakefield and then Huddersfield before returning to Odsal as an assistant under Brian Noble where, as coach of the Under-21s, he coached, among others, current Super League players Craig Kopczak, Dave Halley, Chris Bridge, Karl Pryce, Ryan Atkins and Brett Ferres.
“The club still has a few people from the beginning of Super League, but it’s progressed in a lot of ways,” he says. “This training facility is probably the main example. We needed a top venue to train at because in the early Super League days, we were travelling from fields to the gym on the other side of town. This is much better for everybody.
“The team was the only real investment back then – that isn’t the case anymore. We’ve had to invest in the youth now and in facilities now so that when young men at the age of 14 or 15 come to the club they have the right facilities – a one-stop shop if you like. We’ve got a swimming pool on site, a gym, some very good training fields, rehab, a wrestling room, a recovery centre, a players’ room – it’s all here.
“The club did a whole lot in that first year of Super League with Brian Smith here and Matthew Elliott this assistant. Peter Deakin did a great job off the field and the club was investing heavily in creating a really good gameday experience as well as creating a very good side. Brian put a side together that complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses and obviously the foundations of a successful side was being put together.”
With the Bulls having been nowhere near the top of the table in the two seasons prior to Super League, it was no surprise to McNamara that they were so competitive in that first Super League season, when they were unluckily beaten at Wembley by Saints and came third in the table.
“I’d seen Brian do it before at Hull FC,” he points out. “Maybe not to the extent that they went on and dominated the game but he did enough to ensure that Hull progressed very quickly. At that stage of Super League, when Brian came to Bradford, not many teams were doing things the right way and those that did quickly rose to the top. Ourselves, Saints and Wigan ran pretty hot in the early stages of Super League and it was quite obvious that Brian had a good mix and a good balance.
“The competition wasn’t as strong back then so it’s not as easy to come in and have that sort of impact anymore.”
In 1997, with Elliott in charge with Smith back in Australia, the Bulls stormed to the league title, winning their first 20 games, in the last season of the pre-Grand Final, first-past-the-post system. With the title wrapped up, they lost their last two games to Wigan and London.
“It was a disappointing finish because we could have gone through unbeaten that season,” McNamara ruses. “And not only did we lose those last two games, but we got knocked out of the Premiership competition at home to Castleford. But it was a tremendous year for the group of players – we dominated for a large part of the year and it culminated in us winning the Championship.
“Matty was slightly different to Brian. They complemented each other – Brian put the base together and Matty added his own little bits and pieces and enjoyed a lot of very successful stint. They’re both great coaches and they’re still going strong in the NRL all these years after leaving Bradford.”
After a disappointing 1998, which saw Shaun Edwards leave after a short, ill-fated spell at the club, the Bulls were back to their best in 1999, but were still left empty handed, losing a tight Grand Final 6-8 to St Helens, with McNamara missing most of the match due to an unfortunately timed illness.
“1998 season was a disappointment because we went from winning the title in 1997 to having a real down year in 1998. We didn’t deal with being champions very well I suppose and I remember Leeds turning us over at Odsal early in the season when Darren Fleary and Anthony Farrell took it upon themselves to bash us all up. Iestyn [Harris] scored a hat-trick. It was a tough experience that year and it was strange that it didn’t work out for Shaun here because he’s a legend of the game. But for whatever reason, it didn’t and it was a difficult period of time. These things can be a mystery, but there were other strong characters in the group and we quite possibly got the balance wrong.
“We turned things round in 1999 but, as for the final, I picked up a 24-hour bug and came down violently ill at five on the morning of the game. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best decision for me to play. It was a very tight and controversial game with the Mick Withers incident. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Internationally, McNamara figured only a handful of times for either Great Britain or England but is best remembered for an off-field incident which prevented him from touring New Zealand and the South Pacific with the 1996 British Lions. He shows me a three-inch scar on his palm, a permanent souvenir of a truly bizarre injury.
“It was probably one of the lowest points of me career,” he remembers ruefully. “I’d been picked to tour and was helping out at Skirlaugh. I picked up a crate of French stubbies [of lager] to put on the bus so the lads could have a drink after the game. As I was carrying them, I tripped over my shoelace which had come undone. My hand went straight through them and was practically cut in half. It was a very severe injury and I still don’t feel one of my fingers. It was a freakish thing and to miss a tour like that was a big loss, but these things are sent to us to test us I suppose. But I look back with pride that I played for my country and I managed to do it at a few different levels. I probably didn’t have the physical attributes to be a regular international at the highest level but I was very proud to play when I did. I don’t look back at my international career with any other regrets other than deciding to carry those bottles!”
Back at club level, McNamara’s Bulls’ career ended at the end of the 1999 season. He moved to Wakefield and was joined by Bobbie Goulding, who will be up against him on his international coaching debut in June.
“The best years of my career were at the Bulls but I was very disappointed to leave,” he says. “It wasn’t dealt with how it should have been but those things happen in Rugby League and you have to learn from them. As a coach, I’ve learned from some of those mistakes. I didn’t have any qualms with the decision itself because if you can get someone better in then fair enough, but I felt hard done to with the way it was handled.
“Wakefield was tough though. We had Bobbie, Steve Prescott and Francis Maloney, but the mix wasn’t right – it just didn’t happen for us. We were going to sign Jonah Lomu, Jason Robinson and all sorts but the club was in a hugely false position financially and went into a CVA. We were ten months into four-year contracts and then we were gone. We had no protection financially and all the debts were ringfenced once the CVA came in, but the club were allowed to carry on training. But most of us came out of it OK and I was lucky enough to end up at Huddersfield under Tony Smtih.”
Huddersfield had struggled badly in their first three Super League years, coming last despite the coaching of some high-profile names like Garry Schofield, Malcolm Reilly and John Kear. Under Smith, and with McNamara, they were relegated but bounced back to become a genuine Super League force in 2003.
“Tony came in with some great ideas and he laid the foundations for what the club is doing now. We lost something like 13 straight in 2001 but the directors recognised that things were changing. We turned things around a bit but had left things too late and were relegated on the last day of the season. In the Northern Ford Premiership, we drew at Whitehaven but won every other game and it culminated in us beating Leigh in the Grand Final at Widnes. That Grand Final is massive because so much – like players’ livelihoods and their futures – is at stake. We dominated the year but there’s always the danger something might go wrong on the day. But we came through it.
“I got told by Tony halfway through the year that I wouldn’t be offered a contract the following year. I disagreed with him and went about trying to change his mind, and that’s what happened. So I got the chance to try and help establish Huddersfield in Super League, and we did that by winning a fair few games and finished mid-table. It was a good way for me to finish my career.”
With McNamara’s playing career over, there was only one direction that he wanted to head in.
“I’d actually had the chance to coach under Shaun McRae at Hull before that last year playing for Huddersfield,” he says. “It was a huge attraction because I’m a Hull boy but the attraction of playing an extra year in Super League was even bigger, so it was a risk I wanted to take. When I finished playing I was fortunate that Brian [Noble] wanted someone to help him out at Bradford. He was successful, he was the Great Britain coach and a great person to learn from. It was a good mix and Brian had some trust in me to hand over training to me when he needed to. He was the head of the ship, and I was an assistant he trusted – it worked well. There’s so much work for a Super League coach to do, people just don’t realise what it entails. You need good assistants, which hopefully I was.”
In McNamara’s second year, the Bulls won the Grand Final, having finished third – a wonderful achievement considering that in mid-season they had been written off as no-hopers before finding form just in the nick of time. Strong finishes have always been a regular feature of Noble’s coaching.
“2005 was a difficult season. We started poorly and that culminated with a 60-point defeat at home to St Helens. We sat up all night, the coaching staff, working out how we were going to put things right and it was a real turning point for us because we went on a great run which ended up with us winning the Grand Final. But you can’t be intense all year because you burn out, and you can’t be relaxed and loose all the time. You need to be as intense as you can at the right periods of time – sometimes it means hitting the button a bit harder. And sometimes you need to back off a bit. Brian was good at that. Coaches need to do it as well because they can burn themselves out. If you are too intense all the time, you’ll flatline yourself too. Coaches have to back off a bit and have more of a responsibility at times. The coach needs it, and the players need it.”
Just a couple of months into 2006, McNamara stepped into the Bulls’ hotseat after Noble left the club for Wigan.
“A position came up at Hull but quite quickly an opportunity came up at Bradford too, so I had to assess which was the best path to take. I felt, after being assistant here for a period of time, and knowing the place as I did and the board of directors, it was probably best for me to be at a place I knew fully. I felt comfortable in this environment and even though there’s absolutely no job security in this job, I felt that they knew me and I knew them.
“My relationship with the players changed slightly. Sometimes the assistant is a sounding board for the players but I found the transition quite easy. We just got on with it.”
But the Bulls’ Grand Final team was being broken up. Jamie Peacock, Leon Pryce, Robbie Paul, Rob Parker, Lee Radford, Stuart Reardon, Karl Pratt and Adrian Morley (after a short loan spell), left after that Old Trafford decider and Stuart Fielden joined Noble at Wigan midway through 2006. Even so, the Bulls still came within 80 minutes of a sixth-straight Old Trafford appearance.
“The club needed Stuart to move on in some regards – financially. The stark reality is we had to massively cut our cloth, massively. We had to make so many cuts to stay alive and there’s nothing more important than the club staying alive. We went to Hull broken in that semi-final. Sam Burgess, at 17, had replaced Fielden and he was tearing up trees but he had a shoulder that was hanging out after that game. We gave it our best crack but we just fell short. It was a sad ending to the season but we had a salary-cap reduction from the previous year that was no fault of the players or the current staff.”
In 2007 they made the play-offs again but their season is best remembered for a truly bizarre ending to their game against Leeds at the inaugural Magic Weekend, then called Millennium Magic. With the Bulls clinging onto a two-point lead with seconds remaining, they were wrongly penalised by referee Steve Ganson and then saw Jordan Tansey, who was clearly offside, follow up Kevin Sinfield’s penalty which rebounded off the crossbar, catch the ball and score. Ganson failed to hand the decision upstairs and the try stood – one of the most controversial tries for years.
“Again, we had a salary-cap reduction then we lost those two points to Leeds in that game,” says McNamara. “It was fantastic television drama I suppose, but those things shouldn’t have happened. Even so, we should have been a way better side than the opposition and we should have had the game won by then. When you coach, you also manage and when you have to tell players they’re losing salary-cap points and it isn’t their fault or the fault of the existing staff, it isn’t easy. It hurts, but you have to deal with those situations.”
After the start of that season, McNamara joined Tony Smith on the Great Britain coaching staff and helped them to a mid-year win over France and to a 3-0 series win over New Zealand, Britain’s first series success since 1993.
“Tony asked me to become his assistant when he got the job and I was delighted to accept. The Kiwis were going through a difficult period but we still did extremely well to win three-nil. But we didn’t kick on and went to the World Cup with high expectation and it didn’t work out. I’ve learned a lot from the World Cup and that’s why I feel absolutely confident in this new role. I’ve seen all the very good things that can happen, and I’ve also seen the difficulties faced by players and staff at that level. I’ve been involved for three years and know them as inside out as I possibly can. We’ll do our damndest to make sure we don’t face those difficulties again and I took this job because the RFL are very ambitious and they’ll do their best to ensure we don’t face those difficulties.
“We went to the World Cup and we were under-funded, under-managed and under-prepared in terms of some of the physical performance side of things. They’ve been rectified already by the Elite Training Squad and by the some of the people who have been put in place by the RFL. We haven’t, in the past, got as much information and detail on the people we were about to fight.”
McNamara, however, admits that his knowledge of the NRL could be better. “It’s reasonable at the moment, through contacts and through watching some footage, but it’s my job now to make sure my knowledge is second to none. If there’s a question I can’t answer, I know person who can answer it. The players will get meticulous preparation from the staff this year.”
As far as the squad goes, McNamara believes that the number of Test-standard players in Super League is increasing and points to the international emergence of young halfbacks Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins last autumn.
“We’d made some decisions about which direction we wanted to head in and those players came in and performed admirably well. They’re continuing that form now in Super League and if you write down all the candidates for an England place, that list is starting to get bigger and bigger. There’s no two ways about that – some good things have started to happen that are enabling more and more players to look like international players, either now or in the future. Those two boys are shining examples of that.”
“We’ve gone from a stage a couple of years ago when people said we had no halfbacks to having a lot of options now. We’ve mentioned two but there’s a hell of a lot of other options now and it’s fantastic, and we’re starting to get some big young boys coming through as outside backs. There are some good matchwinners in the comp now, depending what you mean by matchwinners. There are players with flamboyance. But there are bigger issues than just that – there are some mental issues for the group to address, physical issues have been addressed etc – some of them are small but, added together, will make a big difference.
“The players had a fantastic time at the Four Nations last year and we want to build on that – not rip things up, but build on them. There’s a whole lot of people, if we are to be successful, will be part of the journey between now and the World Cup. Maybe a few will step off the bus between now and then, but they’ll all play a part whether they just play this year or if they’re there all the way to the World Cup.”
The phrase ‘sports science’ is one we are hearing more and more, in particular the relative lack of it in comparison to the facilities and programmes available for NRL players. This is an area that the RFL have pledged to rectify.
“In the World Cup, we didn’t have hydration testing, but we do now,” McNamara points out as an example. “We didn’t have GPS either – that’s figures from training and games from the Four Nations. The figures tell you everything about what the players have done physically and we’re at the end of a pretty torturous year when the internationals come around so we need to make sure we don’t overcook these players. If we do, we’ll lose them. Through these numbers, we know how long a training session needs to be and how much each person needs to do. Tony started to fix these things and it’s being carried on now.”
McNamara will become the full-time coach of England when his Bradford commitments expire at the end of the year. How will his role change in 2011?
“I’ll have a role with the Elite Training Squad and an influence over the 20s, 18s and 16s,” he explains. “I cannot sit behind a desk for ten and a half months and then go out and coach to the best of my ability. I need to be out and about and my mind needs to be challenged. Hopefully I’ll have a very good relationship with the Super League coaches and I’ll spend time with the squad throughout the year, although it won’t necessarily be training based. I’ll be in Australia for periods of time, studying and brining things back. It certainly won’t be a desk job!”
If his time at the England helm involves winning a Four Nations or a World Cup, Steve McNamara will retire – whenever that may be – a legend. If he doesn’t, he won’t. But one thing’s for sure – it’s the toughest and loneliest of jobs that he’s walking into.