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No conspiracy as both Brians go home

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George Riley George Riley | 17:56 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010

I always expected Brian McDermott to become Leeds Rhinos head coach but never expected it to happen so soon.

Few would have been surprised at the end of next season if Brian McClennan walked away as Leeds coach to be replaced by his assistant McDermott.

Indeed that appeared to be the plan, with McClennan penning his contract extension back in May, and McDermott agreeing in August to quit as Harlequins coach to be his number two.

Yet this week's timing was sudden, and took me by surprise when we broke the news shortly after 11am on the Victoria Derbyshire show on 5live. Handed a piece of paper by my producer simply saying "McClennan's quit Leeds!", I was still somewhat unsure of its authenticity when I read the story out.

"Why has he done that if he's just agreed a new contract?" asked Victoria. I had no immediate idea.

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Of course, in my mind were the conspiracy theories regarding McDermott long being groomed to succeed the man they call Bluey, but my initial thought was that it was something else.

Had there been a fall-out with Bluey? Had Leeds been alerted to the availability of another top class coach and persuaded McClennan to go a year early so they could get their man?

My mind went back to a conversation I had with Brian Noble over Challenge Cup weekend when he surprised me by saying the Leeds job is one he had always wanted. Incidentally Nobby heard the news while dining with fellow rugby league writer Chris Irvine in Melbourne, and was himself genuinely shocked at big Mac's fast-tracking.

At the risk though of disappointing the conspiracy theorists, I'm convinced that there's not a great deal of cloak and dagger in this.

McClennan signed a new deal in May, with a view to leaving at the end of that one-year contract. A few weeks' reflection post-season has seen him realize that it is in the club's best interests to go immediately. Why hang around for a year before giving McDermott the job, when big Mac could just start now?

Granted you do wonder how lucky McDermott is in joining a top club as assistant coach, then becoming head coach before a pass has even been thrown.

This was however worth a phone call to the new boss, if only to unleash that trademark Big Mac ire on national radio when I suggested to him that this was planned all along:
"To make it clear, this has not been a long thought-out conspiracy," he told me.

"I left Quins for the right reasons and that was my family. There was no guarantee of anything when I left Quins. McClennan has made his decision suddenly but you'd have to speak to him about the nuts and bolts of why he's made the decision.

"I've been speaking to Brian at least once a week about planning pre-season and we've got on really well. There is no cloud over this judgement, it is a big call for him but I respect him for it.

"It is absolute rubbish to suggest that it was a done deal when I left Quins. If that was the case I'd not have had so many sleepless nights since I left London!"

One compliment I can pay the refreshingly bullish McDermott is the reaction to this interview from one of our studio guests, comedian Kevin Day. "I don't like rugby league but I wish all our football managers answered questions like that," he said.

Some fans have questioned whether McClennan's role had become untenable. Whispers of players not liking him, his coaching staff of Willie Poching and Franny Cummins already moving on - perhaps frustrated at their lack of opportunity to move up the coaching ladder at Headingley?

But I respect McClennan's reasons. It is in keeping with a man who I always found to be a gracious loser when interviewing him after any admittedly infrequent defeat during his successful three years at Leeds.

He knows he has played his innings at Headingley, and realises if he stuck around for another year he'd be holding the club back.

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I think Bluey has done Leeds a big favour in quitting now. I understand the penny dropped that the time was right just a couple of weeks ago, when he saw his young kids smiling and giggling while playing together in the sea on holiday in Spain.

Bluey lives near a beach in Auckland and realised it was time to put his family first and take them home. If he'd hung on for 12 more months at Headingley he'd have been treading water.

"I'm content and happy for my kids as they're excited to go home," he said.

"I know the club is in good shape. I think the players are going to appreciate hearing a new voice too. Brian's going to be great and he deserves this chance, he has a wonderful group and he'll have a great time."

Chief Executive Gary Hetherington has been a big player in this whole episode. As I reported in my blog a couple of months ago I spotted Gary and Mac watching a Featherstone game together in August, which did get me thinking.

I understand Hetherington and McClennan sat down and came up with this decision between them, before telling McDermott of the plan.

McDermott was not involved until being told Bluey was leaving, and being offered the job. McDermott then spoke to McClennan to check he was okay with what was happening, and tells me he would not have taken over the role if he was not.

"I feel very honoured and privileged but very excited and determined to continue the work he has done," says McDermott.

"The initial assistant coach role was a godsend, so to get the big job fills me with humility. I'm not running down streets punching the air but it's a big job I'm very excited about."

I do accept both Brians' version of events in this one and wish both well in their two very different new challenges, although it is difficult to accept McDermott and chief executive Gary Hetherington had not talked about Mac's future opportunities in the job before now.

So what does the future hold? For McClennan, he immediately flies back to New Zealand where he will relaunch his sports consultancy business and wait for an opening in the NRL.

Having been planning pre-season with McClennan, McDermott's pressing concern will be advertising his own assistant's job that he never really started. I understand he wants to name a player who has either just retired, or one who is poised to finish playing.

Then there is the issue of player recruitment but this will also be a smooth transition. Unlike at Premier League football clubs, Hetherington looks after that at Leeds. He works out who they want to sign, and who they can afford, and then liaises with the coach - although McDermott would never give the nod to a player he didn't rate.

This will be a new experience for McDermott who claimed at Quins he did everything down to stitching the kits until the appointment of Paul Blanchard as general manager.

I do though think it is going to be a tough couple of years or so for Leeds.

The West Yorkshire dominance of the Rhinos and Bradford Bulls appears to have been arrested by this past season's assault from across the hills. Wigan champions, St Helens beaten finalists, Warrington back-to-back Challenge Cup winners.

"I wouldn't be as dramatic as you George," says McDermott. "People talking of momentum swinging away from Headingley suits me fine as there is still a lot of quality here, so we'll be okay."


  • Comment number 1.

    I wish Mac well, but have a sneaky feeing that he will struggle as a Head Coach of a big club. Mac was a breath of fresh air when he came to Quins (after Tony Rea, that didn't take a lot!!!) and he did a good job of keeping us in Super League. That being said, there were some very bizaare decisions over the course of the next few years but I can hear the argument that he had a limited budget to work with etc.

    The flat caps may well disagree, but I think Mac is just a good No2!

  • Comment number 2.

    I think Mac's not a bad appointment, but I think he's got his work cut out! Leeds faltered for much of the first half of the 2010 season, and with a number of players now with their best rugby behind them, he needs to try and find the right balance of youth and experience. The problem even goes beyond that though, as much of Leeds' salary expenditure seems to be tied up in these older players, leaving very little for bringing in new players. They have a few good youngsters, but they are not up to the standard of their Lancashire rivals at St Helens or Wigan.

    The next couple of years will be interesting at Leeds. Can Mac produce a winning side? I'm not so sure. I think a few more of the old guard need to follow Diskin and Donald out of the door, before they can bring in the fresh talent they need to be a major force again in Super League.

  • Comment number 3.

    A team that finished fourth, half of the squad injured, and got to the cup final after beating the two grand finalists is on the decline?
    As Mac says, keep thinking that way. I would like to bet the head coaches of Super League won't be.
    The big thing Leeds have lacked is discipline. Apart from the CC final, we outplayed the rest of the top four on a few occasions. Then fell apart against teams who were struggling. Mac will bring back that ruthless streak.


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