Nigel Wiskar hears how England coach Steve McNamara is settling into his new role as assistant at Sydney Roosters and hears his feelings on the team’s heart-breaking World Cup exit last November…
On Sydney Roosters…
McNamara believes huge player numbers producing strength in depth is the main difference between the NRL and Super League. While squad sizes are similar, scratch below the surface and the wealth of talent is far greater. He said: “The participation levels between here and the UK is the difference.
“There are 2,400 under-14s players in Parramatta alone over here to choose from going forward. That’s one small part of Sydney and that’s our total in the UK. When you look at that, we constantly punch above our weight in terms of converting participants into world class athletes.”
His daily coaching brief at the Eastern Suburbs club breaks down into two distinct areas. He added: “One of the major parts is to scout the opposition so I was tailor-made for the World Club Challenge. I feed that information to the rest of the staff and players. Away from the day-to-day first team I have a huge responsibility for the players outside the 17-man match squad.
“We have 32 in our full squad but 15 aren’t playing NRL, they’ll be playing for Newtown Jets or the under-20s and are exceptional young players. There was a bit of a gap in terms of what we were providing for them last year so I’m spending time giving them attention.”
And the drop in title doesn’t bother him: “I’m fine with the new role, I’ve no huge ego.”
Roosters have a roster of world class talent with none more stellar than Sonny Bill Williams. But McNamara believes his English representatives Down Under match up.
“It was surreal. It felt like the stadium sort of stopped, froze, and went deadly silent for a few seconds then the world started to move again. I don’t want to be over dramatic but it was a real heart-wrenching, sinking feeling. I don’t think those sort of memories you forget. You move on. Of course you move on but they are there at the back of the mind. It took a fair while to want to go through the video.”
“Sonny’s a very humble person,” says McNamara. “He’s an outstanding athlete and when you work with him day and night you see the exact qualities he’s got. But I do that with the England team as well. Our very best players match up. Sonny’s a fantastic performer and you’d rather have him on your side than against you. But during the World Cup I was working with Sam Burgess, James Graham and Sam Tomkins. They are world class players too.”
Despite sharing the bewildering pain the rest of the nation suffered, McNamara believes there is a genuine legacy from England’s exploits.
“It was difficult to speak directly after the game,” he said.
“But the one consolation to come from it was being able to say to the players that at some point in their young careers, something triggers a desire to go on and be successful. I remember my dad taking me to Boothferry Park in 1982 watching Great Britain play Australia. I thought ‘wow’ and if our semi-final hooked a whole load of kids who want to be the next Sam Tomkins or the next Sam Burgess then that’s probably a consolation. It doesn’t have to have been the English players, it might have been Sonny Bill, it could have been a game that inspired them.”
And he spoke of his own distress when Shaun Johnson scored the winning try in the last seconds of the 20-18 semi-final. He added: “It was surreal. It felt like the stadium sort of stopped, froze, and went deadly silent for a few seconds then the world started to move again. I don’t want to be over dramatic but it was a real heart-wrenching, sinking feeling. I don’t think those sort of memories you forget. You move on. Of course you move on but they are there at the back of the mind. It took a fair while to want to go through the video.”
The England coach copped some flak for his handling of the controversies that hit the home nation’s camp.Gareth Hock and Zak Hardaker were both released from the squad for off field behaviour. He is adamant he handled it correctly.
“There are one or two little tactics here or there you might change but nothing major elsewhere,” he said.
“We were extremely well prepared for that competition and made some tough decisions along the way, tough but right for the benefit of the group and every decision was made to increase our chances of performing in that competition.”
He added: “I will not allow anyone to be part of the England group unless their standards are very, very high. Those standards were set and agreed upon by players and staff quite a few years ago. You’ve got people like Jamie Peacock, Adrian Morley, Jon Wilkin, Gareth Carvell and Gareth Ellis who set such a high benchmark. If I didn’t act strongly in certain situations then not only would I be letting down the current group of players but also players who have helped create such a strong identity.”
It’s a huge loss. He’s the jewel in our crown in Rugby League in this country and it’s very difficult to replace world class players. In Australia they probably can cover more easily a loss of someone like that. He’s a young man and I wish him the best but we need to move on from the World Cup and we need to move on from losing Sam.”
On this year’s Four Nations…
It’s impossible to talk about England’s chances in the tournament later in the year without first discussing the loss of Sam Burgess to rugby union. McNamara immediately acknowledges his are huge boots to fill but expressed hope he will return to the game one day.
He said: “It’s a huge loss. He’s the jewel in our crown in Rugby League in this country and it’s very difficult to replace world class players.
“In Australia they probably can cover more easily a loss of someone like that. He’s a young man and I wish him the best but we need to move on from the World Cup and we need to move on from losing Sam. It won’t be easy but I’m sure everyone in Rugby League will wish Sam the best and hopefully at some stage well see him back.”
McNamara acknowledges he is leader class and would have made a worthy captain.
“He’s got those types of credentials. I always spoke to Sam about his career and climbing up the ladder at the right rate. A lot of superstars, footballers, go from having absolutely nothing to having the world at their feet and they’ve missed a few rungs of the ladder on the way which are important stepping stones in life. Sam’s had those with his father and his career. Whether he’s captain or not he’s a leader in the group.”
The England coach realises the size of the challenge when they take on Australia, New Zealand and either Fiji or Samoa.
He said: “I spoke on the bus going back to Manchester after the semi-final. We spoke about the next challenge ahead and winning that on foreign soil in Australia and New Zealand would be a bigger achievement than winning a World Cup on home soil.
“Do we look at that next cycle or do we look at what’s in front of us right now? That whole group of players from the youngest to the oldest in Kevin Sinfield have at least got 12 more months in them and if that group decides to make up those small differences then we have a hell of a chance. There are also a lot of young players in the game now who are putting pressure on those people and by the time we have our camp in June I’m 100 per cent sure there will be young players coming through.”
McNamara keeps tabs on those potential England players quite easily. He added: “I get the Sky games on Eurosport and all the other games I get sent over on a Monday, sometimes even quicker. And I get cuts of all players on the computer straight away and stats reports from an analyst.
“There’s a group of people back in England who are very good at their jobs. They feed information back and I trust their judgment.”
On living in Sydney…
McNamara is revelling in his new life on the other side of the planet.
“It’s a great city to live in,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be here in the summer which I’ve not done before so the weather’s outstanding.
“It’s a vibrant, busy place but also laid back as well. The Eastern Suburbs, where I’m living now, is a great spot. It’s a very affluent area with expensive properties and a lot of wealthy people. But what I’ve quickly recognised is it’s built on hard work and the Roosters club is based on that as well. A lot of people look in envy at the wealth of the area but that doesn’t just happen. They’ve put in the work.”
“I get the Sky games on Eurosport and all the other games I get sent over on a Monday, sometimes even quicker. And I get cuts of all players on the computer straight away and stats reports from an analyst.”
So does he start the day with a dip in the breakers at Bondi Beach? “Well we generally start work at half six,” he laughed, “but I have done when I’m not dragging myself into work. Loads of people do it. I’ll be driving to work at 6.30 and there will be people everywhere, training on the beach and in parks keeping fit and staying healthy.”
And on his day off? He added: “It’s a day off today and I’m going into work right now. They don’t call them days off here, they call them non-training days. That means the players don’t train but it’s not a day off. But if I’m not going in, I’ll get up and have some breakfast on the front just looking over the sea and maybe have a swim. I miss family and friends back in England but I’ve got a group of 12 mates coming over for one week.
“It will be great to see them.”