Brian McDermott knows a thing or two about what it takes to win within the incessant grind of rugby league, getting his hands on multiple trophies during his decade-long playing career at Bradford before going on to become the most successful coach in Super League history.
He was the man in charge when Leeds Rhinos were in their pomp, rolling their way to four titles, a World Club Challenge and two Challenge Cups as Kevin Sinfield and co tore up the record books.
‘It’s almost like we’re playing the same sport, but we’re not’
McDermott has seen just about everything the game has to offer, starring as a prop for Great Britain before eventually taking the reins at the burgeoning Toronto Wolfpack and then lower-league outfit Featherstone Rovers.
Yet the 52-year-old admitted that his transition to being an assistant coach for the Newcastle Knights in the NRL has taken some major adjustments. And not just because he’s relocated himself halfway around the world to grasp the opportunity under Adam O’Brien.
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“It’s been a very interesting period for me because it’s just been very different,” McDermott said while appearing on the KNIGHTS // HQ Podcast.
“It’s almost like we’re playing the same sport, but we’re not.”
Having spent the vast majority of his career in the north of England, McDermott revealed how the level of preparation that went into practice sessions in Australia was an eye-opener.
“We don’t do it in Super League either because we just don’t or it isn’t something we’re thinking about, or we’re just not able to because of the resources that go into it,” he said.
The NRL is enjoying a goldrush with a rich television deal and a rising salary cap in stark contrast to where the Super League currently finds itself.
The game in the UK has been neglected for far too long with dwindling viewership and resources expanding the already considerable gulf that existed between the leagues.
The NRL’s proposed salary cap will be more than treble that which the Super League sides operate within, while the minimum salary on offer to rookies is also steadily increasing.
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A mass drain of local talent in the UK has been on the cards for a while and the Knights, in particular, have identified the competition as a breeding ground for prospects they can lure over to the Hunter.
Will Pryce and Kai-Pearce Paul have been recruited for 2024. Bailey Hodgson and Dominic Young have already made the move.
“I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems like the Knights are going down the route of what Canberra did that made them so successful,” the club’s new halfback, and former Man of Steel, Jackson Hastings told The Bye Round Podcast with James Graham.
“We’re getting them really young and if we get a core group of English people there, you never know who you could attract moving forward.
“Financially for them, money isn’t everything, but it can almost be life-changing for a young kid.
“I want to see superstar talent stay in the Super League because I care about that competition so deeply now after being there for so long…but at the same time, the player has got to do what’s the best for themselves.”
This is something England captain and Catalans fullback Sam Tomkins held grave fears about as the spending power of clubs in the NRL are now able to blow any local offer out of the water. Unless IMG’s recent partnership acquisition can yield immediate results, the game’s future looks bleak.
“The growth in the NRL is just booming,” Tomkins stated last year.
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“They’re getting more investment and bigger salary caps. The players are getting bigger and faster as the product is growing and we’re not following that. It’s something that we need to do.
“Investment is huge, sponsorships are huge and broadcast money is huge.
“They go on multiple channels and every single game is televised- we’ve not even got every game televised!”
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Besides the financial superiority, McDermott also highlighted how young players in Australia were already at an advantage from the very first time they laced up their boots compared to their counterparts.
“Weather is a big factor,” he stated.
“I know people will roll their eyes, especially owners and chief executives in England, because they just don’t want to hear about the facilities and the resources that you have to put into a team.
“But if you just did quick numbers on a 10-year-old kid in England and tried to work out how many field sessions they would have in practice…and by the time they get to 20, how many extras would they stay out for after their coach has finished talking?
“How many times he would pass, kick or tackle something in his own time- it would be enormous for the kid down under compared to the kid in England.
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“It’s not that the coach doesn’t think about those things or that the kid is lazy. Quite often the kid has got to get off the field in pre-season because it’s cold.
“And I’m not just talking about, ‘Woo, it’s a bit chilly’. I’m talking about you cannot feel your hands. Even if the kid stays out there for some of the hundreds of field sessions…he couldn’t use his hands.”
Josh McGuire explains the difference between young rugby league stars in Australia and the UK
The difference in skill level has often been discussed when comparing the two leagues with recent Super League signing Josh McGuire touching on the subject after his move to Warrington.
“I’m super impressed with the work ethic,” the veteran forward said of his new teammates.
“It’s quite refreshing that the kids here are so hungry to learn. Back in the NRL, the kids’ skill levels are through the roof but a lot of them have been told how good they are for their whole lives.
“Here, they’re grafters who are appreciative of what they have and are eager to learn.
“The skill levels haven’t had the opportunity to develop yet but their work ethic is so refreshing.”
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McDermott explained that while the desire to improve on the fundamentals existed for players in the UK, the resources they had available to them, and the impact of harsh winters, made it almost impossible to keep up with Australian standards.
“Players do stay out and do extras, but you’re not staying out for an extra 20 minutes,” he said.
“The extras that you’re getting through aren’t top quality or the top end of skill. That’s the biggest difference.
“This place we train at here [in Newcastle] I can’t describe to you how different it would be for a team in Super League, never mind teams below that.
“Most teams in Super League have got some alright facilities, not many have got brilliant ones.
“But to have this for a level of practice and the amount of quality work you can get through…you multiply that by 15 years and then you really start to see the difference in some players compared to others.”