One of the key voices the Kiwis players will hear leading into Friday night’s Anzac Test in Canberra will sound just a little different.
Okay, it’ll sound a lot different. So different, in fact, that the man behind the voice, assistant coach Steve McNamara, began his tenure as David Kidwell’s right-hand man by suggesting anyone who couldn’t understand him should raise their hands.
McNamara, who is also assistant coach at the Warriors, hails from Hull, an outpost city in Yorkshire’s East Riding. Nestled on the banks of the Humber River at the end of the M62 motorway – the main thoroughfare between Yorkshire and Lancashire that carves a route straight through Northern England’s rugby league heartland – Hull boasts a proud and independent people who, to put it frankly, speak a barely intelligible dialect of English.
“Yeah, but in fairness I still can’t understand Issac Luke,” quips McNamara when the issue of a language barrier is raised. “So it’s a two-way street. But I did say ‘if you are not understanding me put your hand up’.
A veteran of 296 Super League games for Hull, Bradford, Wakefield and Huddersfield, McNamara was a goal-kicking loose forward who made up for what he lacked in size with determination, guile and outright guts. Although not gifted enough to be a mainstay at international level, he did play four test matches for Great Britain.
Upon retirement in 2003, he moved straight into the coaching ranks, taking charge of a Bradford academy team stacked with the likes of future internationals Sam Burgess, Brett Ferres, Chris Bridge and Ryan Atkins.
In 2006, when Brian Noble quit the reigning Super League champions for Wigan mid-season, McNamara moved into the head coach’s job. He was 35. His time at Bradford coincided with a gradual financial collapse that ultimately snowballed into total disintegration, so McNamara’s prospects of repeating the success the club enjoyed in the first half of the decade were limited.
His path on the coaching fast track, though, continued unabated and in 2010 he was appointed coach of England.
“When you are head coach and that spotlight is on you, that camera is on you, and all the pressure is building, nobody understands what it is like to be in that chair unless you’ve been sat in that chair”
Fast forward seven years and McNamara finds himself on the opposite side of the world, playing a key role in a camp that was once firmly enemy territory.
“I was talking to my wife on the phone the other day saying ‘wow, how has this happened’?” he says.
His international odyssey, which included a three-year stint in Sydney with the Roosters before jumping The Ditch, really began at the final whistle of the 2013 World Cup Semi Final between the Kiwis and England.
New Zealanders will remember that match for Shaun Johnson’s miracle try in the final seconds, which snatched a remarkable victory from what would have been a truly dispiriting defeat. On the flipside of that coin was an England squad that had been building towards the occasion for four years. McNamara’s plan to transform England from an afterthought into an entity capable of breaking up the Kiwis-Kangaroos hegemony at the top on the international tree had failed by the narrowest of margins, in the cruelest of fashions.
“We were literally broken by Shaun Johnson in that semi-final,” says McNamara.
While he continued as England coach for another two years, McNamara had already turned his eyes to Australia. He’d always admired the NRL and, still just 39, was dead keen to test himself in that environment. When Roosters coach Trent Robinson offered an assistant coaching role, McNamara snapped up the chance.
“Sometimes it’s easy to make a comfortable decision,” he says. [The NRL] is not easy, it’s not comfortable. You are challenged every single day, and that is what I was looking for.”
When Stephen Kearney was appointed Warriors coach at the end of 2016, McNamara was surprised to receive a call asking if he would serve as his assistant. In a nice piece of symmetry, Kearney’s last season as a player was with Hull F.C., McNamara’s home town club.
The pair’s relationship, though, stemmed from the times their paths crossed as rival international coaches.
“We had that mutual respect for each other,” says McNamara. So he packed his bags for Auckland and the challenge of helping to resurrect the floundering Warriors.
The offer to assist Kidwell with the Kiwis, though, came out of the blue. The pair’s children knew each other in Sydney, but McNamara and Kidwell only knew each other in passing. With Kidwell having served as Kearney’s assistant with the Kiwis, it’s not hard to work out where the recommendation to bring McNamara into the Kiwis fold may have come from.
McNamara’s coaching pedigree is obvious, but to have the former coach of England firmly ensconced in the Kiwis camp – a role he will fill to the World Cup – is an interesting call.
“I was really, really pleased to accept and, to be honest, really honoured to be asked,” says McNamara of the offer to adopt a new country. “As an Englishman, to be asked [to coach] by an international team in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m really, really honoured.
“I said to the players, I live in their country now. I really like the country, I love the people and the culture, so it is a real honour for me to represent New Zealand.”
Having plotted for so long to topple the Kiwis it must, surely, be an odd experience to be inside their inner sanctum?
“It’s the same in that you are working with world class players,” he says. “You are working with the cream of the crop. That’s what you want to do as a coach.
“The experience I had as head coach of England puts me in a good position to help this group.
“As an England squad, we were looking for best practice and a world class preparation – because we had to. We were behind the Southern Hemisphere teams in terms of the standard we were achieving. We did some tremendous things in that England programme. Hopefully I can pass on some of that information.”
McNamara has loved his time Down Under. Of course, it’s a different kettle of kippers to being the head honcho. An assistant doesn’t have to drop players, front the media when things go pear-shaped or shoulder the scorn of a nation when Shaun Johnson’s dancing feet lay waste to years of planning.
Of course McNamara is happy and relaxed. But does he see himself as a No. 2 long-term?
“It’s different, make no mistake about it,” he says. “When you are head coach and that spotlight is on you, that camera is on you, and all the pressure is building, nobody understands what it is like to be in that chair unless you’ve been sat in that chair. And I have been there on numerous occasions, so I think I can bring something to the head coaches that I am supporting right now.”
Yes – and?
“I’m working extremely hard in the roles that I am in to hopefully, hopefully, get a chance as a head coach in the NRL myself. As an Englishman coming across to the Southern Hemisphere I am well aware you have got to earn your stripes.
“I’ve had a great apprenticeship from a very young age and my NRL experience has added to that. I’m not saying the time is right right now. I am going to enjoy the jobs that I am doing. But one of the reasons for coming out here and challenging myself was to hopefully get that opportunity.”
McNamara’s England never beat Australia, a ‘no-try’ video referee call on a Ryan Hall attempted grounding on the final whistle in Melbourne that would have won them the match in 2014 was as close as he got. If the Kiwis win on Friday night, you can bet the man from Hull will savour the experience – even if not everyone around him understands his jubilant outpourings.
“Like I said, I’m living and working in the country now,” he says. “I’m really proud to represent it and I genuinely mean that.”