Skip to content

A former royal marine and boxer, Wolfpack coach has compelling back story


TORONTO — As coach of the transatlantic Wolfpack, Brian McDermott doesn't have the presence or profile of some of his Toronto coaching counterparts.

But the 49-year-old Englishman has a compelling back story. McDermott was a former royal marine, boxer and Great Britain rugby league international before winning a string of trophies as Leeds Rhinos coach.

Now, McDermott is looking to get the Toronto Wolfpack promoted to the elite Super League while spreading the gospel of rugby league in North America.



The son of a builder and youngest of 10 children (eight boys and two girls), McDermott grew up in the rugby league hotbed of Wakefield in northern England.

It was a "do as I say" family. Little was explained and obedience was expected. 

"My upbringing, a Catholic upbringing in the north of England, was children should be seen and not heard. And everybody should conform to the rules that have been in place for hundreds of years," McDermott recalled in an interview.

Years later he realized it was the complete opposite of coaching.

"The 'do as I say' philosophy doesn't work in coaching, Absolutely doesn't work. Any tough sport, any sport, the players, the athletes have got to want to do it. Your job is to convince them to want to do the ugly stuff, the real hard stuff."



At 16, McDermott applied to join the royal marines.

"By the time I left home, I was this ball of aggression and anger and questions and no answers," he told the Mantality Magazine podcast. "And guess what. I went and joined the most violent bunch of men that's ever going to walk planet Earth."

But he says military discipline saved him.

"It was a brilliant way of life, tough for sure. But it taught you a little bit more than what you imagine the military do normally teach you. A bit of humility, a bit of realism. And you grew up there ... I think the essence of who I am is based on what the military has taught me."

He started boxing in the marines, representing the Royal Navy. He did tours in Northern Ireland and Iraq — "life-changing experiences."

But being a career soldier was not for him.

McDermott had signed up for a 22-year stint and, after serving just five years, had to pay 525 pounds ($895) to get out.



After leaving the military, McDermott rolled the dice on a career in rugby league.

All his brothers had been involved in the sport at some level with oldest brother Paul playing for Wakefield, York and Sheffield in the late '80s.

Brian had played in his younger days, but says he wasn't very good. After the marines, he was ready to try again.

"I'd just come off the boxing squad, I was extremely fit and I just did more work than anybody else and I started to catch the eye of team scouts."

He started with Bradford Northern, a famous club now known as the Bradford Bulls.

Brian Noble, the Wolfpack's director of rugby and a legendary former player and coach, was Bradford captain at the time. Coming off an injury, Noble played in a reserve match that served as a trial for McDermott. The coach at the time asked Noble to check him out during the game.

"A big man ... unbelievable heart, passion," Noble recalled. "So I said to the coach 'Mate, you just need to sign him. He's got the engine, he's a tough kid.'"

The six-foot-four McDermott went on to play more than 250 hard-nosed games for Bradford from 1994 to 2003, eventually representing both England and Great Britain. But the early days were tough.

"I found the game pretty physically tough for the first two or three years. And I'm playing in a sport which, in my opinion, was two muscular blokes who were doing the wrong type of exercises, the wrong type of weights and maybe a little bit more than that, might I add."

In his third season, McDermott came to a crossroads. Rugby league was transitioning from semi-pro to pro and money was tight.

"The coach said 'The budget's gone, we have no more money, we don't think you're good enough.' The really short version of the story is I refused to leave his office and said 'Can I prove you wrong?'"

McDermott went to training and worked part-time to earn money to live off, eventually earning a full-time deal.

He retired at 32 after leaving it all in the field.

"It was pointless me squeezing out another couple of years out of my career at the expense of my knees and my body. It was just the right time to do it."



McDermott had coached a little after a childhood friend asked him to help out with a local under-nine side. He stayed with them until they were 18.

"I hadn't really thought about it as a living, though."

Then Tony Smith asked him if he wanted to helped out at Huddersfield. So he went there, helping out with a little coaching and strength and conditioning.

Smith was instrumental in his coaching career, telling him he had to change his approach. McDermott had thought "if it sounded right coming out if my mouth, it was right."

"But i also knew coaching was for me, bizarrely ... When I started doing it, I really enjoyed it and i thought I could make a living out of this."



After spending one year at Huddersfield and three at Leeds as an assistant, he took over as head coach of Harlequins RL in 2006.

Away from the north of England, the London club was somewhat under the rugby league radar. It proved to be a perfect place to begin as a head coach.

"I was allowed to make a few errors there and nobody found out about it ... Put it this way, had I had made those errors at Leeds Rhinos and that would have been my first head coach's role I probably would have got the sack."



In October 2010, he took over at Leeds, inheriting a team of seasoned internationals.

The Rhinos won the Grand Final his first two seasons at the helm. Leeds also beat Australia's Manly in the 2012 World Club Challenge. McDermott didn't get a lot of credit, with some saying he was riding his talented team's coattails.

"I remember the first couple of years I was regularly booed at home games," he said.

He was told he didn't smile enough, with one member of staff telling him he was the most unpopular coach the club had ever had.

"That did make me smile," McDermott said wryly.

In 2014, Leeds won the Challenge Cup before claiming a domestic treble in 2015, winning the Grand Final and Challenge Cup and finishing atop the league.

The next year was a disaster. The training ground was flooded, causing havoc in the pre-season. His ill-prepared, injury-ravaged team finished ninth.

But Leeds rebounded in 2017 to win the Grand Final again.

"Absolutely my best coaching was dragging that team up from the bottom of the ladder the year before to winning the Grand Final," McDermott said

McDermott's Leeds run ended in July 2018 with four games left in the regular season after a 46-8 defeat at Wigan, the team's seventh straight Super League loss and ninth in 12 matches in all competitions.

The Rhinos had been hit hard by injuries and some of the losses were close ones. But the longest-serving Super League coach was out

"I didn't agree with the decision, I still don't agree with the decision," he said.

"There's loads of things I could have done better and should have done better and I'm not going to tell you that the club was wrong. That's not my position to say ... I thought it was a mistake because the players went into free fall. And I had such a good relationship with all the players."

"We would have turned it around," he insists.



McDermott had experience with rugby league in North America after serving as coach of the U.S. national team while at Leeds.

The Rhinos had held training camps in Jacksonville, Fla., where he meet Daryl (Spinner) Howland, GM of the Jacksonville Axemen rugby league club. That led to the U.S. job.

Punching above their weight, the under-resourced Americans got past Canada and Jamaica in qualifying to make it to the 2017 World Cup, where they went 0-3-0.

"And what a committed set of men they were. It was incredible the amount of commitment they had. Humbling as well," said McDermott.



McDermott was named Wolfpack coach in November 2018, four long months after getting fired at Leeds.

"Jobs just don't come along as you imagine," he said.

"Our sport's not the most highest-paid sport in the world," he added. "I didn't have enough money in my bank to retire either, not that I would have retired. It wasn't an easy period, no."

After watching his team lose out on promotion under coach Paul Rowley to London Broncos in the Million Pound Game, Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle wanted someone who could get his team over the finish line.

McDermott's one concern was "how serious are the people involved in it?"

Argyle and Noble convinced him. And the job offered the challenge he craved.



Under McDermott, the Wolfpack have continued their winning ways. At 13-1-0 ahead of Friday's visit to Sheffield, they top the second-tier Betfred Championship.

McDermott says like Leeds, the Wolfpack have a target on their back "because of the perceived resources that we've got."

"You're not going to hear me whine about the squad that I've got. I've got a very good squad. But every single week and I mean every single week, we face the best of the opposition."

"The dynamics of Toronto being in the English competition is a massively expensive operation," he added. "And David Argyle is doing a brilliant job in resourcing it I won't just say funding it but resourcing it. ... Yet other teams would think that we've got it all, that it's so easy for us."

Said Noble: "I don't think any other job would have got him. I think the dynamics of transatlantic (play) and the dynamics of spreading the gospel of our great game (convinced him). You've got a Bill Parcells or a (Bill) Belichick, a man of that kind of quality at the helm in Toronto."



Away from the playing field, McDermott is a divorced father of two sons. Home remains Leeds. His partner is of Italian descent.

He wears his heart on his sleeve.

"There's no secrets with him. He's intelligent, he's tough, he's been through the mill in relation to life experiences," said Noble. "I consider him a friend even when he went to coach Leeds, the arch-rival to the Bradford club where we played together."

Added Argyle: "I like his mantra and what he stands for in life and how that translates into how the guys play ... A very interesting man."


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press