Rugby League Heroes: Barrie McDermott

The prop from Oldham enjoyed three seasons with his hometown club, one with Wigan and eleven for Leeds before he signed off with a year with Widnes in 2006.

His medal haul includes a Super League ring and winners’ medals for the Challenge Cup, the Stones Bitter Championship, the Regal Trophy and the World Club Challenge.

He missed over 40 matches through suspension and was involved in various off-field skirmishes.

He represented Ireland and Great Britain and is now a commentator on Sky Sports, while also helping to raise funds and awareness for the MND Association, following Rob Burrow’s diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease a year ago.

RR: If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

BMc: The most satisfying game was the 1999 Challenge Cup Final between Leeds and London Broncos. It was just a great day all round. My son was the mascot. We had a gang of lads who I love being around – great pals and friendships. At the back end of my career, there wasn’t the same level of enjoyment off the field. But in 1999, on and off the field, it was fantastic. We celebrated properly.

RR:Are you still claiming you scored the winning try?

BMc: Yes, of course – I scored the match-winning try in a 52-16 win! And another reason that try meant a lot was that I had always teased Rob Burrow that I’d scored in a Challenge Cup Final and he hadn’t. That was until 2015 when he scored against Hull KR. When he went clear, you could see a little glint in his eye that he was going to score, even though he had a slight injury. He told me later he was determined not to mess it up because I couldn’t have that hold over him forever! Back to 1999, it was great to win with Tez Newton, Moz and Iestyn. Graham Murray’s way of playing was simple – offloads and skill but with tough forwards. We all had to be a pack – a unit. We had that aura before we even got onto the field. He was a wonderful man-manager. He loved spending time with us, but he also loved giving us a bollocking. He was my favourite coach.

RR:Was there a time, particularly in 1998, when you doubted you were a Graham Murray-type player?

BMc: I didn’t doubt my ability, but I doubted whether I could give him what he wanted. We had three or four frontrowers right at the top of their game. I didn’t quite get it right in 1998 and it was a tough year, having broken my leg in 1997. There were a few things going on in my life and I wasn’t as single-minded as I was in 1999. After a talk with Damian McGrath, the assistant coach, I sat down with Graham and we were okay after that. Previously, I’d paid a bit of lip service to coaches. I was stubborn. But Graham wanted what he wanted, and when you proved you could do it, you were okay then.

RR:Saturday was the 33rd anniversary of the air-rifle accident that cost you your right eye. How did it affect your game?

BMc: I knew when the anniversary was coming around every year at first, but not so much now. It makes me look back at my career and think I couldn’t have got any more out of it. I had my window of being considered among the best props in the game, and that’s something I’m proud of.

RR:You toured with the BARLA Young Lions in 1991, after which many of the squad enjoyed a top-flight career. Why doesn’t that happen now?

BMc: Players mature at different times, some at 18, some at 21. The expectation of Scholarship players today is that they’ll go into the first team at clubs like Wigan and Leeds. But we stayed in the amateur game, going on long coach journeys to Cumbria and playing against men. It was tough. The Scholarship system does offer an education on things we didn’t get, but the sort of apprenticeship I had stood my generation and the ones before it in good stead. I played open-age rugby at 15, which sounds ridiculous now. I played in the Pennine League Division Eight, up against blokes with big ‘taches and no front teeth. I value that experience so much.

RR:One of the things you’re well known for is your disciplinary record. Do you regret any particular incidents?

BMc: I don’t regret anything one little bit. The way I played wouldn’t stand up today. But it was of its time. You got your retaliation in first. People got king hit, teeth were knocked out, noses and jaws were broken. You got that just by wearing the number 10 shirt. I love today’s game, but there’s a physical element that must stay in the game, while also protecting the players as much as possible. Look at the injuries suffered by Joe Burgess and Oliver Gildart in the Grand Final. We didn’t know about them until the end of the game. I love that. At 48, my body is knackered, but I knew what I was signing up for. I had 26 operations during my career and eight since. But I loved what I did.

RR:You were also known for your offloading game and ball skills that are rarely shown by today’s props. Why has that changed?

BMc: Today’s props have different skills. When I played for Oldham, it was really unscripted. When the big Kiwi Charlie McAllister had the ball, he didn’t have anything in mind, he just saw what was ahead and played accordingly. I would offload the ball on my own tryline if I could get away with it, but not every team wants that. The offload is underused, but today’s props do have good passing skills. You sometimes see them getting into first man and putting out good passes and laying on block plays. Graham Murray used to say to me, “Imagine a coach is writing a tip sheet on Barrie McDermott. Your aim is to have the opposition coach worrying about as many things as possible.” So I worked so hard with people around me like Iestyn and Kev to develop the things I wasn’t necessarily good at. Full-time professionalism was great because you suddenly had time to work on your weaknesses and not ignore them, which you did when you only trained twice a week. These days they’re in front of a computer as much as they’re on the field.

RR:What are your memories of playing for Oldham between 1991 and 1994?

BMc: I loved it. It was my hometown, my community. We’re never far from normal life as rugby players, and it was great to play for Oldham against the big boys like Wigan and St Helens. My ambitions were high. They signed Andy Goodway and Bob Lindner in my last year and they started to work on me with what I could achieve in the game. I started to think I could match Andy Platt and Kelvin Skerrett and if they could win medals and caps, then so could I.

RR:You had just one season at Wigan and claimed in your book that you felt like you didn’t belong there.

BMc: I had an interesting conversation with someone just an hour ago who was at Wigan, and they said they didn’t fit in either. There are 50 or 60 kids in Wigan every year turning 17 who want to play for them, so the club have this massive base to choose from. If you’re not from Wigan, there might be a feeling you’re taking one of their places. It wasn’t the right club for me at that time. I’d like to have done more and left on my terms, but the best thing they did was get rid of me and send me to Leeds.

RR: By that time, you’d played for Great Britain in 1994, winning an Ashes Test at Wembley with 12 men.

BMc: That was the first really big game I played in. Twelve to 18 months earlier, I was in the Oldham ‘A’ team playing in front of one man and a dog. Then I’m being coached by my hero [Ellery Hanley] in a game for Great Britain against Australia. There are seminal moments in your life that you’ll never forget. I took from that game that I had the minerals required to play Rugby League at that level. I was gassed by the end. We were down to 12 men, but I knew I could play on that stage on a regular basis. I loved mixing it with Paul Harragon, Paul Sironen and Bradley Clyde, players I’d only seen on VHS videos.

RR: Your early years at Leeds were tough with a relegation battle in 1996, a broken leg in 1997 and then struggling to get into the side in 1998.

BMc: I’d signed for Leeds and been sold a dream, although it wasn’t looking like that dream was going to come true. But 1996 was a year I valued because I was an ever-present. When the chips were down, I’d shown I could be counted on. I nearly signed for Bradford at the end of the season. 1997 was the year of the extended World Club Championship with the Australian sides, and we didn’t do well, but if they’d persevered with it, we’d have got closer and then come up on the right end of the scorelines. We do things and then scrap them in Rugby League. I love the World Club Challenge now because I can be as biased as I like in commentary. 1997 was enjoyable until I broke my leg. I embraced the challenge of getting fit again and playing for Graham Murray, but it took longer than I thought to come right.

RR: 1999 was when it all came good again for you, although the year started inauspiciously for you with a red card against Wigan. You claimed in your book that Simon Haughton dived.

BMc: At the time, I felt I was hard done to, but I have to admit now that it was a bad tackle and it hurt Simon. He was a great player.

RR: The Irish lads clearly enjoyed themselves in the World Cup in 2000. But should you have beaten England in the quarter-final?

BMc: If Ireland had beaten England, it would have been a disaster for the game in this country. We had a young kid called Carney who didn’t know what he was doing, but he did it better than anyone apart from Robinson and Offiah. The Aussies in the side were great and the rest of us were there through grandparentage. We knew we could make a difference by taking the game to those who had never seen it and it was a wonderful experience. The sport has never really maximised the potential of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. There are good players out there even now, but we need to find a way to help them progress.

RR: Did scrapping Great Britain hurt Ireland as it forced players to choose between England and Ireland, rather than give them the chance to play for both Great Britain and Ireland, as you did?

BMc: Yes, players are ambitious and if you don’t aspire to play at the highest level against the best then you’re not doing yourself justice. If you can play for Great Britain or England against the Aussies and the Kiwis, then you’ll take it, so it’s understandable that Toby King, Micky McIlorum and Morgan Knowles, and many others before them, have taken the decisions they’ve taken and credit to Morgan for speaking out about it. The game isn’t getting the traction it should do in the three home nations. Ronan Michael at Huddersfield, the Irish lad – we need more players like him. It frustrated me that when the Great Britain side was named last year, it had club sides next to the players’ names, not England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

RR:After five years out of the team, you played for Great Britain again in 1999, with more caps coming your way between 2001 and 2003.

BMc: 1999 was the first go at a Tri-Nations. We had some older players and some new ones. Touring is always great but it’s not enjoyable if you’re not winning. There were no cliques and plenty of good camaraderie. After the World Cup, O’Connor and me were at the top of our games and we became the starting props. We’re close mates and have been since our teens, so it was great to play alongside him. It was good mixing with other top players like Paul Wellens, Gary Connolly, Paul Sculthorpe and Adrian Morley, but Andy Farrell was untouchable.

RR: Nine years after you helped Great Britain beat the Aussies with 12 men, history nearly repeated itself at Wigan after Adrian Morley was dismissed. Did David Waite ever explain to you why he only played you for two minutes that night?

BMc: This is what happened. Waitey came into the dressing-room before the players. I was upset. I wanted answers but I didn’t articulate it in the best way, as it was in the heat of the moment. We went home. At the next training session, he apologised to me for getting it wrong. He said he was wrapped up in the game and that he didn’t think we would lose. He told me he trusted me, and I did play in the next two Tests. I got over it quickly. We lost each Test in 2003 in the last few minutes. They were three of the worst post-match feelings I can remember. They were also my last internationals. After Leeds won the Grand Final in 2004, I didn’t feel I could get myself up for an international series. I don’t know if I would have been picked, but I chose to make myself unavailable and focus on 2005 with the Rhinos.

RR: Talking of 2004, what did Tony Smith change at Leeds, and does Daryl Powell deserve more credit for laying the foundations?

BMc: Powelly doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He probably struggled with the players he had played with, and I include myself in that. If I could have my time again, I would have done what he wanted, exactly how he wanted it. Smithy came in and changed a few things, but he just took on what Powelly had done. It’s great to see him doing well at Castleford. He’s a good coach. He didn’t just tell you why you were weren’t playing. He made sure you were okay.

RR: You were excluded from the 17 for the Challenge Cup Final in 2005 when Leeds lost to Hull. By all accounts, the Hull players were delighted to hear you weren’t playing.

BMc: Yes, I‘ve heard that. It was hard for my family and me, but I look back at my last two years with a lot of pleasure because I worked so hard to win a Grand Final and a World Club Challenge and I achieved those in 2004 and 2005. It would have been great to play at Cardiff, but it’s not the sort of thing I dwell on.

RR: Your 2004 autobiography is one of the best-selling British Rugby League books.
Are you pleased you did it?

BMc: I was always unsure about doing a book because I’m just Barrie from Oldham, and I wasn’t sure who would be interested in my story. But I’m glad Peter Smith, who wrote it with me, persuaded me to do it. I was very proud of it then and I still am now. It gives background to a lot of things that happened, whereas, back in the days before social media, the club would just put out a statement about something and that was that.

RR: You had a swansong at Widnes before finally retiring in the autumn of 2006.

BMc: I loved playing for such a historic club. I’d finished at Leeds because of my shoulders, but I couldn’t resist having one more year with O’Connor. We were coached by Steve McCormack, who was fantastic. He was happy for me to substitute myself when I needed to. One of my heroes as a kid had been Kurt Sorensen, so I was made up to play for his club.

RR: How tough did you find things after your playing career ended?

BMc: It was difficult, but I had something to go in to. Some players don’t and they are then tempted to carry on playing when they shouldn’t, just to pay the bills. It’s all about education and Rugby League Cares are doing a fantastic job with this and have made a big difference.

RR: You were commentating for Sky Sports on the day of the 2010 Championship Grand Final when news came through that Terry Newton had taken his own life. You then spoke of him with such eloquence, presumably within minutes of finding out.

BMc: I think I was in denial at first. I kept expecting Tez to walk into a room and laugh at us. My memory of that day is just what a tragedy it was. What a waste. He had issues going on. He was serving a ban and was unable to play the game he loved. He was in a very dark place and he made a very bad decision.

RR: You’re something of a veteran at Sky now. What does the future hold for you?

BMc: I love it. I’m someone who just wants Rugby League to do well. There are always people who criticise Sky, but I was playing when we switched from winter to summer and I saw what they did, even though a lot of that money was squandered. I love what I do, and I’d like to think I represent the supporter at home, sometimes with a bit of humour, but I know I don’t always get it right. I’d love to do it for as long as I possibly can because it’s such a privilege.

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