It is said that the word legend is overused in the modern world but, in terms of rugby league, former Leeds Rhinos and Great Britain forward Barrie McDermott is more than worthy of that description. With nearly 300 appearances with the West Yorkshire giants saw the enforcer win everything the domestic game in the UK could offer having played – and scored – in the Rhinos’ 1999 Challenge Cup success, 2004 Grand Final triumph and their 2005 World Club Challenge win over the NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs, becoming the first player in their history to have won all three. An intimidating man on the field, Get ’em Onside was lucky enough to find out that, face-to-face, he is far from that off the pitch. The Sky Sports pundit kindly gave up some time before the recent Super League clash between Hull FC and Leeds Rhinos to speak about his time in rugby league and his views on the current campaign.
One of the original Super League hard men, the 45 year old admitted to having an aggressive streak but felt that he used it to his advantage, explaining that “if It was channelled it right we could get a good result.” He further added that when he started playing rugby league, that was the norm. “When I joined the game, that was how we played – you picked your partner, did your dance, and if I got over the top of their big man then my team mates could do what they were good at,” he said, and that streak certainly helped his teams to be successful – none more so than with Leeds where he won various trophies. It is perhaps to be expected that some people believe that an on-field character like McDermott’s must be consistent off the field but that couldn’t be further from the truth. From sitting and speaking to the Oldhamer, it is clear that he is a man passionate about his sport but also willing to talk to anybody – the fact he offered his time is a testament to that and he articulated that “like a lot of rugby league players, it was very much Jekyll and Hyde – I took what I did very seriously. I’m a competitor and I always want to be the best I can be, to be the best in my chosen field.”
He left the game in 2006 after a year with Widnes Vikings and, over his 16 years as a professional, he saw the game evolve from being a brutal one to where, he feels, that aggression started to leave the game to be replaced with more skill and guile. “The game started to change and evolve and I tried to change and evolve with it – there was still an element of the aggression in the game then but I don’t see too much of that now.” Reflecting on his time as a player, he confirmed that he “I loved the challenge, whether it was running hard, hitting hard or having a tear up!” One of the fights of McDermott’s that comes to mind is that of his encounter with Bradford Bulls’ Stuart Fielden in a 2002 defeat to their old rivals, a video of which is available on Youtube. Speaking of that, McDermott’s smile gave his feelings away. “They were good days, I loved playing against Stu. I always looked forward to our conflicts but he might have a different opinion on it,” he revealed, adding that he did that most weeks and against most teams.
Nowadays, far from being a referee’s worst nightmare like he may well have been as a player, McDermott’s new career as a Sky Sports pundit has opened his eyes. “I’m mates with Stuart Cummings and we’ve been speaking recently about some of the difficulties they’re going through at the moment,” he revealed, admitting that he had a certain rapport with some officials when he was a player. “When Stu was reffing we would have a bit of banter and he never sent me off which is extremely rare! He stood by his thoughts that he knew how to handle players like me so he didn’t feel he had to spray the red cards about,” he explained. “When I played, the chances are if I was pulled up I was guilty and I had a fair few referrals by disciplinary committees – I was always guilty. I wanted to do damage to opposing teams in whatever way I could.”
In 1991 he visited New Zealand with BARLA and he explained his belief that, while the current system isn’t the worst, he felt that the system almost two decades ago was good and offered players great opportunities. “My thoughts are we need to invest again in the game at all levels now to see results in five or ten years time,” he explained, suggesting that the game in schools needs to be pushed a lot more. “There are kids there who are suited to our game who may not ever get access to it and might not ever join a team like York Acorn, Hull Dockers or Stanningley. If they are playing rugby league at school, the good players can get signposted to the good amateur clubs and go from there. There aren’t enough kids playing the game.” One thing he did speak of in glowing terms, however, is the promotion of the game to those of backgrounds who may not have had the access in the past. “I’m thrilled to see PDRL, wheelchair and learning disability, women’s rugby – I’m delighted to see all manner of people enjoying our game,” he explained. Speaking more of his experience with BARLA, he admitted it played a huge part in his career. “It was a seminal moment in my life. At the time, I was the best player in my team and I went into a team of ‘best players’ and had to fight for my place in the starting line up and, then, you’re completely out of your comfort zone in a foreign country, totally stripped back and you are out there – you will see what you really are.”
Speaking now of his role with Sky Sports, he confessed to being a student of the game. “My attitude towards the game is about preparation – as a player and a pundit. After that, it’s a journey of excitement and enjoyment. I’m a passionate rugby league man and I’m a lover of all the levels of our game.” The resources he has available to him now thanks to his role with the company leave him with an insight very few people have and revealed that he is “always looking for the inside track, I look for patterns and recurring things with players and teams.” His interest in other sports leaves him taking notes on the coverage of those in order to benefit his punditry role. “I’m a huge fan of combat sports like MMA and I’m seeing how different commentators and pundits articulate a certain things, a turn of phrase or a word, and see if it’s something I can bring in and use.”
As a pundit with the sports broadcasting giant, it was interesting to also get an insight into his views on this season so far and, speaking of the stand out team so far, there was no surprises with his answer. “St Helens by some distance. I think Hull FC are in with a shout [of silverware] and you can never count out Leeds and Castleford. Wigan are getting better every week but I’m always happy to be surprised and shout for the underdog,” he revealed, confirming what most fans are currently thinking regarding the Saints being favourites for Grand Final success, although the Warriors have been installed as the bookies’ choice for a Challenge Cup triumph, perhaps down to Justin Holbrook’s men having being drawn against Castleford in the last sixteen of the tournament. That desire for the underdog to succeed brought us onto the topic of underrated teams and McDermott outlined last season’s fifth place team as one who perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve. “Talking to people in and around the game, the misconception is that Wakefield are a poor relative of the Castleford and Leeds area but they are a side to be reckoned with – their victory against Saints showed that they can beat anybody on their day.”
Looking at youngsters, the Leeds Rhinos legend gave a glowing comparison to one of his old team’s hottest prospects. “Jack Walker reminds me of a young Darren Lockyer,” he suggested, adding that “he’s just able to ride tackles. You’d think with his small frame that he wouldn’t get through but he does, him and Danny Richardson are the two stand outs for me.” Interestingly, he outlined another player at his former club as the man he sees with some of his playing characteristics. “I see plenty of potential in Mikolaj Oledski. In no time at all I think he’ll be ripping up trees in Super League. I was at the Rhinos when he first came in and he was big then,” he explained. An honourable mention was also given to Hull FC’s youngster Masi Matongo, a man whose background McDermott feels showcases the game of rugby league rather well. “Rugby league is a great place for those athletes that don’t fit in other sports and his journey is an unusual one. We always get someone from left field who doesn’t fit the mould and makes a mark on the game – we’re very inclusive [as a sport] like that.”
The warmth of the man when speaking to him was palpable – he is a man who totally loves the game and, in his own words, wants to be involved in it “until the day he dies.” His outlook on the game is justifiably respected with his experience and passion evident. His gratitude towards the game is also plain and he explained that “I’m not one of those people that looks back and wishes I was back there. I’m grateful for those lessons and where they’ve taken me and I have no regrets – how could I have any regrets?”
From a brutal enforcer to an articulate voice with great knowledge of the game, it is fair to say that Barrie McDermott was a huge presence on the pitch and is the same off it and it is a mark of the man that he was willing to give up his time to speak to Get ’em Onside.