If I were to say Scotland Rugby League many people would say; rugby league in Scotland? Surely not! Ian Robertson the voice of rugby union on BBC Radio said that very thing when I met him at the Double Header in September. However they took part in the World Cup, making friends along the way as they beat Tonga and the USA. Having won the European Championship this year they’ll take their place in the 2016 4 Nations competition; taking their well earned place beside England, Australia and New Zealand.
Having watched Scotland RL beat Ireland RL in Dublin I met Steve McCormack the man who has been Head Coach for 10 years; that must be some sort of record! As is my way I asked for an interview and found myself heading to Wigan while I was in the North to watch Saracens play Sale. I had the Postcode and address but wasn’t expecting to find myself packing in what looked like a school car park. I was intrigued and quite excited to discover the story behind the venue as well as learn about a man whose name I’d heard a lot of over the years.
I’ve interviewed a few people now on the “Life After Rugby’ theme; my internet digging didn’t harvest me much information on Steve but I felt certain he’d have played somewhere along the line; and so it was to prove! Steve is Wigan born and bred he played his club rugby at Wigan St Jude’s one of 2 very famous grassroots set ups in a town that lives and breathes rugby league. He represented England at 16 playing in the 2nd row. Knowing what I do about Wigan people that will have been like a dream come true! However Steve’s dreams were to be shattered early on in his career.
He damaged his shoulder at 16, in his words his shoulder was ‘smashed up’. In spite of painful reconstructions his playing career was in effect over before it properly started. Devastating to a lad who had watched his Wigan since the age of 2. I have to say here that this is one of the things I love about watching league in the North; I’ve met people in their dotage who have literally watched the game all of their lives; it’s wonderful!
Back to Steve: He went to Deanery School then on to Wigan College where he took a Level 3 course in Sports Science, in tandem he was coaching at St Jude’s at passed his Level 1 qualification at 18 and went on to pass to Level 3. He attempted a comeback at St Jude’s but playing wasn’t to be for Steve. A life in the Fitness industry was looming for Steve as he worked as an instructor at the local stadium. He headed the 1st GP referral scheme in Wigan while there.
Steve’s life was to move back to the game he loved when Salford Reds came along to train where he was working; One Andy Gregory Widnes, Warrington and Wigan legend was coach at that time. Steve carried out fitness sessions with the players and that led him to become Conditioner and Academy Coach at Salford. He stayed at Salford for 7 years and held a number of positions becoming the youngest Superleague coach at the age of 28.
He left Salford in 2002 and went on to become head coach at Whitehaven where he had great success taking the club to 2 Grand Finals losing out to Leigh then Castleford narrowly missing promotion to Superleague. Steve received the Coach of the Year audit twice in his 4 years at the club; it was during this time that he was approached by David Waite Director of Rugby at the RFL to see if he was interested in becoming Scotland RL Coach. He thought about if for all of 5 seconds before he accepted.
Steve had been travelling from Wigan to Whitehaven where his family had remained; he left the club where he’d been very happy in 2005. Widnes called next; he went to them as Head Coach after they’d been relegated form the top tier; he had what he describes as 4 challenging but good years. They won the Northern Rail Cup in 2007 and just missed out on a Superleague franchise; looking at the club records one Mick Nanyn was a key player in the 2007 season scoring a mighty 434 points! the club was very volatile financially during Steve’s tenure until Steve O’Connor a local businessman invested heavily in his home town club.
Steve is clearly a sucker for a challenge his next post was at Gateshead who hadn’t won a game when he arrived; they won 9 of the final games in the season but in common with many rugby league clubs went into administration seeing players leave the club. Next stop was Swinton Lions where Steve took his place for 2 seasons. 2 successful seasons as they won the league and were promoted to the Championship also gaining the Club of the Year prize in 2012.
As his 3rd season loomed with Swinton Steve’s Dad became unwell; Steve took a step away from club coaching as his Dad, a very important part of his life, was poorly; losing his Dad to the illness was then and remains to be devastating. It was to be Scotland RL who brought Steve back his enthusiasm for the game. To step back a bit as far as Scotland are concerned…
Steve has had as his partner in crime Dave Rotherham throughout his 10 year spell as Scotland Head Coach; he sees that as a large part of how they are where they find themselves now. When Steve took the job they had no resources or facilities; but the 2 men created an environment that was good to be in. Based on that the players themselves worked as recruitment ‘tools’ – the culture was set in 2004 and is really starting to bear fruit now.
One of Steve’s best rugby memories came in the 2008 World Cup in Australia; Scotland were beaten in Canberra by France as they ran away with the game in the final 20 minutes. The team regrouped and scored an historic win against Fiji; 3 brothers played in both that and the following game against Tonga – Ian, Kevin and Andrew Henderson. Their father was very poorly with Leukaemia but watched his sons play for his country and struggled to find Steve to thank him for the experience; a hugely emotional and humbling experience. Tonga beat Scotland by some margin but the win against Fiji had put the Bravehearts on the map.
In 2008 Scotland made the final of the European Championship to be beaten by Wales; that was the year that Keith Hogg, now Chairman got involved (I must confess to him being my big brother) he brought more changes with him. For the 2013 the team were based in Workington and the town took the team to their hearts. Tonga were up first and Scotland turned the tables beating them 26 to 24; they then drew with Italy and finally in the last of their early games they beat the USA 22 to 8 having 5 tries disallowed! They had to wait on the result of Italy v Tonga – that game went their way and Scotland progressed to the Quarter Finals.
The Kiwis waited for Scotland in the Quarter finals; the Bravehearts won a few more hearts as they went down to New Zealand who ran in 8 tries; the biggest cheer of the night came as Alex Hurst scored for the Scots. the final score was New Zealand 40 Scotland RL 4 but their pride was intact. That win against Tonga was Steve’s first game back after the loss of his Dad and it renewed his passion for coaching; something I’m sure Scotland RL are very grateful for!
In the meantime running alongside the rugby Steve studied further; firstly obtaining a Certificate in Education before studying a Post Graduate Diploma in Sports Coaching. His experiences throughout his career had shown Steve just how volatile sport can be; looking for more stability for his family Steve had joined St Edmund Arrowsmith High School; working as a Teaching Assistant and Cover Supervisor. He then became a Course Team Leader at Warrington College.
Steve dipped his toe back into club rugby coaching with a spell at Gloucestershire All Golds putting structures in place and finding the team some wins. His next rugby move was to come from a chance meeting with Ian Lenaghan, Chairman of Wigan Warriors at a Wigan game against the Huddersfield Giants. Ian will have known all about Steve and kept him in mind. A call from Ian inviting him to meet with Kris Radlinski would see the skills Steve has gained combine.
Steve was appointed Community and Coach Development Manager at the club he has loved all his life! He’s Head Coach of the U16’s and coaches the 14 & 15 year olds coming through the system. The club run a Pathways Education for 16-18 year olds at the Wigan Warriors Education Academy and here I’m going to lift the ‘blurb’ from their prospectus:
“Wigan Warriors is one of the most famous and successful sports clubs in the World. The club has grown from humble beginnings into one of the giants of British Sport. Wigan Warriors realise how important it is for young people to make healthy lifestyle choices and develop into responsible adults. We also understand that rugby league and sport is unique in its ability to reach out to young people
We offer a range of educational opportunities for young people. From Foundation Level Programmes that improve confidence, Life Skills and Employability to Level 3 Vocational Programmes that provide access to employment opportunities or Higher Level study. Our programmes are innovative, inspiring and delivered the Wigan Way!”
“EVERYTHING YOU WOULD EXPECT FROM WIGAN WARRIORS”
Steve is clearly incredibly proud of what his club are offering to the young people of Wigan and my interview with him really did cover 2 of my favourite topics – “Life After Rugby” and ‘There’s more to Rugby than Rugby”. It’s great to see a man with a passion for both rugby league and education working in a club that has been a part of his life for virtually all of his life! As far as Scotland RL are concerned I now have double reason to wish them well in 2016; they are growing and giving deserved success to their long term Head Coach!