Family Passion Runs Deep for
McLennan

As New Zealand close in on a Tri-Nations final appearance, their coach explains how important it is.

For Brian McClennan rugby league is not so much a game or a job, much more a family passion. Not only does he nurture a family atmosphere within his New Zealand squad - something his players invariably mention when they talk about what playing for their country means to them - he also has the code in his blood.

Embracing the 15-a-side code has simply never been an option for the amiable 43-year-old who has taken the Kiwis to the brink of the Tri-Nations final. "It's very much a family thing for me," he says. "My wife's mother and father and both grand parents were all life-members of a league club. All my family have been involved in league and all my friends play or watch."

The strongest link of all is with his dad, the former St Helens coach Mike McClennan, who is proudly following this tour. "He's excited about being back," he says. "He's been back before, but to be here following his son around is a bit special and I get a lot of strength from it."

McClennan Snr was a popular figure in the British game, although some of his whackier ideas - like the 6ft 7in John Harrison heading the ball - earned him the affectionate, alliterative and disrespectful nickname of "Mad" Mike McClennan. "He was a real innovator, always coming up with new ideas," says his son - but he never coached the Kiwis.

His own route to the job has been via the grass-roots of the game in his native Auckland, as a player who was never quite good enough for the Kiwis, player-coach and coach of various club sides.

Last year, he was one of Daniel Anderson's assistants for the Tri-Nations and, when Anderson left to become Saints' new coach, he was offered promotion to the top job.

That raised family issues. McClennan had needed to return early from last year's tour because his wife, Julie, was seriously ill. She has now recovered well from an operation to remove a brain tumour but, with three children younger than five, the idea of being away from home for six weeks was not an easy one to take on board.

"It had been a very difficult time for our family, so we had to sit down and talk about whether I could accept the job," he says. "It's really, really hard being away from New Zealand for this length of time, but we all realised I had to do it.

"I'm going to have her fly out here for the last week, which is another reason why I really want us to make the final." McClennan can also see the broader picture of what it would mean for the game in New Zealand, where it has a constant struggle to escape the long, black shadow of rugby union. "The rah-rahs," he laughs. "Don't get me going on them.

"In New Zealand rugby union is a religion. It's in all the schools and it's a constant battle to keep league there. A lot of players go on that pathway from school to the union clubs. All the league boys have to have a little bit of a rogue element in them to stick at the game they want to play. I love that. I'd be one of the most passionate leaguies you'd ever meet and being part of a Kiwi squad that's going well makes us all feel really good."

Only a mathematical miracle can now prevent the 2005 Kiwis succeeding where last year's failed by reaching the final, with all that will do for the code's profile back home at a time when the All Blacks are sweeping all before them.

"I think it would have a huge impact on rugby league in general," he says. "The excitement last year was Great Britain going so well. Now a lot of people might be hoping that we can knock Australia off their perch. If someone can beat Australia, that's going to make next year's Tri-Nations huge."

As a league loyalist with a strong sense of the game's history, McClennan is delighted to be playing today at its birthplace in Huddersfield. It's another element that makes this a special time for a man with rugby league in every corpuscle.

For Brian McClennan rugby league is not so much a game or a job, much more a family passion. Not only does he nurture a family atmosphere within his New Zealand squad - something his players invariably mention when they talk about what playing for their country means to them - he also has the code in his blood.

Embracing the 15-a-side code has simply never been an option for the amiable 43-year-old who has taken the Kiwis to the brink of the Tri-Nations final. "It's very much a family thing for me," he says. "My wife's mother and father and both grand parents were all life-members of a league club. All my family have been involved in league and all my friends play or watch."

The strongest link of all is with his dad, the former St Helens coach Mike McClennan, who is proudly following this tour. "He's excited about being back," he says. "He's been back before, but to be here following his son around is a bit special and I get a lot of strength from it."

McClennan Snr was a popular figure in the British game, although some of his whackier ideas - like the 6ft 7in John Harrison heading the ball - earned him the affectionate, alliterative and disrespectful nickname of "Mad" Mike McClennan. "He was a real innovator, always coming up with new ideas," says his son - but he never coached the Kiwis.

His own route to the job has been via the grass-roots of the game in his native Auckland, as a player who was never quite good enough for the Kiwis, player-coach and coach of various club sides.

Last year, he was one of Daniel Anderson's assistants for the Tri-Nations and, when Anderson left to become Saints' new coach, he was offered promotion to the top job.

That raised family issues. McClennan had needed to return early from last year's tour because his wife, Julie, was seriously ill. She has now recovered well from an operation to remove a brain tumour but, with three children younger than five, the idea of being away from home for six weeks was not an easy one to take on board.

"It had been a very difficult time for our family, so we had to sit down and talk about whether I could accept the job," he says. "It's really, really hard being away from New Zealand for this length of time, but we all realised I had to do it.

"I'm going to have her fly out here for the last week, which is another reason why I really want us to make the final." McClennan can also see the broader picture of what it would mean for the game in New Zealand, where it has a constant struggle to escape the long, black shadow of rugby union. "The rah-rahs," he laughs. "Don't get me going on them.

"In New Zealand rugby union is a religion. It's in all the schools and it's a constant battle to keep league there. A lot of players go on that pathway from school to the union clubs. All the league boys have to have a little bit of a rogue element in them to stick at the game they want to play. I love that. I'd be one of the most passionate leaguies you'd ever meet and being part of a Kiwi squad that's going well makes us all feel really good."

Only a mathematical miracle can now prevent the 2005 Kiwis succeeding where last year's failed by reaching the final, with all that will do for the code's profile back home at a time when the All Blacks are sweeping all before them.

"I think it would have a huge impact on rugby league in general," he says. "The excitement last year was Great Britain going so well. Now a lot of people might be hoping that we can knock Australia off their perch. If someone can beat Australia, that's going to make next year's Tri-Nations huge."

As a league loyalist with a strong sense of the game's history, McClennan is delighted to be playing today at its birthplace in Huddersfield. It's another element that makes this a special time for a man with rugby league in every corpuscle.

- - - - -

Dave Hadfield is a leading UK rugby league writer whose work appears in The Independent (UK) newspaper. We thank them in re-producing his great article.

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