Leeds Rhinos: McDermott takes inspiration from past ‘test’ matches

Brian McDermott
Brian McDermott
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BRIAN McDERMOTT will echo the sentiments of the great coach Peter Fox when he addresses his Leeds Rhinos side ahead of tonight’s historic game.

The treble-winning club round off a remarkable season in fitting style this evening when they host New Zealand, the No1-ranked team in the world and Four Nations champions, at a packed Headingley stadium.

In the modern era, and especially since the demise of traditional Ashes tours from Australia, it is a rarity for any club side to face an international team.

Not since 2002, when Hull FC – marking the last international at their Boulevard home – and St Helens both tackled the visiting Kiwis has a Super League side done so.

For Leeds, however, you have to trawl back to 1994 when they faced a brilliant Australia side, suffering a 48-6 defeat at Headingley against Bob Fulton’s Kangaroos, for the last time they featured in such an occasion.

Back then, the tourists played 14 matches in total, taking on the likes of Castleford, Halifax and even Sheffield Eagles in midweek games alongside a fiercely contested three-match Test series, but the advent of Super League meant there has never been a similar event since.

In 1994, prop McDermott was amid his debut season as a professional with Bradford when the Kangaroos, featuring grizzled forwards such as Paul Sironen, Ian Roberts and Glenn Lazarus, arrived at Odsal.

Speaking to the YEP, he recalled: “It was brilliant and a great occasion on a few different levels.

“Everyone was really interested in it. The significant thing was how much we – Bradford Northern – thought we could win.

“We lost about 40-0 but while it was a one-sided game there were moments in it where we were really competitive.

“There was a moment during that game when, as a young professional, I was expected to be blown completely off the park but we weren’t.

“There was just occasions where a bit of brilliance or a bit of speed from the opposition got them the game.

“It was such an exciting time and we knew at the time it would be.

“Peter Fox, who was our coach then, nailed it and said ‘you fellas don’t know when you are ever going to face a national team again.’

“Some of us may go on to play internationally and we’d be very fortunate to do that but for the vast majority he told us we’d never get to play at that level again so grab it with both hands.

“I think I’ll be saying something similar to my players on Friday.”

Ex-Great Britain boss Fox, of course, led Northern to consecutive league titles in 1980 and 1981 before his second spell at Odsal.

McDermott, who was 24 at the time and made his Great Britain debut two years later, continued: “Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart ... name them, they were there in that Aussie team … some absolute top-end legends of the game and still legends now.

“We all aspire to certain things in our careers and to play against the best is one of those.

“At the time they were just the team bar none – they were that far in front of everyone else.

“I remember lining up with the likes of Roy Powell, David Heron, Jonny Hamer, Karl Fairbank, Paul Dixon … it was a half-decent Bradford team, very tenacious and a side I felt really comfortable with.

“I was a young professional myself and while I appreciated it was a big game I didn’t really appreciate the true magnitude of it.

“But it was drummed into me by all the older pros.”

With around 20,000 fans expected to descend on Headingley tonight for a game that also celebrates 125 years of sporting action at the famous ground, it is set to be a record crowd for a Leeds v New Zealand fixture given the current best stands at 17,039 from as far back as 1951.

Furthermore, as well as being the official farewell to Rhinos legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, the club is also saying ‘goodbye’ to two more of their heroes – Adrian Morley and Ali Lauitiiti – who return for special-guest appearances.

Veteran prop Morley debuted for Leeds in 1995, not long after McDermott took on the Kangaroos, and soon established himself as one of the modern greats before, at 38, calling time on his career with Salford Red Devils last month.

McDermott smiled: “I don’t think I’m going to have to teach him how to play rugby league in the short time I’ve got with him.

“But I think this is just one of those occasions where you sit back and appreciate the moment; it’s a bit of an eyes-up time.

“Rather than just focusing too much on your own little patch you just have to realise that the team we send out there will have Adrian Morley in there and Ali Lauitiiti, a lot of players who played in the Grand Final and some of the young fellas where the future of this club lies, too.

“And we’re playing against the best team, at this moment, in the world.

“It’s something we’re not going to rush past – we’re going to savour everything it’s got.”

McDermott – named Coach of the Year this season following Leeds’ outstanding triumphs of collecting the Challenge Cup, League Leaders’ Shield and Grand Final – says the expected capacity crowd this evening is further evidence of just how well the entire Rhinos operation is run.

“Working at this club there’s loads of challenges and loads of benefits, plus loads of moments where because it is this club you think it’s hard,” he said.

“But, I can tell you, for the vast majority of time , it’s a brilliant club.

“For the club to have turned around the Leeds Arena in less than 18 hours after the Grand Final to do the ‘welcome home’ party it just gives you a real good gauge of how hard and how efficient some people at this club work.

“It’s not always just about the players and coaches, there’s some outstanding professionals that work in the offices and corporate side of things.

“To go sell this game out – I don’t think there’ll be any tickets left on game day – it is just great.

“It will be a brilliant occasion. Any Headingley stadium near sell-out is amazing.

“We experienced that against St Helens in the play-off. What an occasion that was.

“I think there’ll be near 20,000 there on Friday so it will be as exciting as anything.”