As someone who has generally rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job, either as a player or coach, taking a passive approach does not come easy to Brian McDermott.
The head coach of the Toronto Wolfpack recognizes the importance of stopping the spread of the coronavirus, though, even as he sits at home in the northern English city of Leeds, champing at the bit in anticipation of the resumption of play and once again taking a game “into the arm-wrestle stage.”
But rugby league has been his bread and butter for the majority of his 50 years on the planet, and its absence has left him in something of an existential frame of mind.
“My vocation in life has been rugby league for the last 30 years now, so I’m really struggling personally at the moment,” he says. “It’s not about earning money or earning a living, it’s about what do we do? What are we here for? What’s the point of being here?”
That’s not to say McDermott isn’t putting his time to good use. Rather than putting on the oven mitts to audition for The Great British Bake Off or uploading home workouts to Instagram, as many others are seemingly wont to do during this period of isolation, McDermott is looking to keep up morale within his squad. But he hasn’t downloaded Zoom, Meet or any other video-conferencing app. He simply calls up players on the telephone, checking up on them and making sure they’re staying healthy and giving them any updates on the season.
Not that there have been many positive ones of late. Just last week, the club announced that the first three home fixtures, originally scheduled for Toronto’s Lamport Stadium beginning later this month, will be postponed. Whether they will be played or whether they take place on this side of the Atlantic, is still up in the air.
“Nothing’s been set in stone at all,” McDermott says.
The Rugby Football League and Super League, the sport’s two governing bodies, are looking at a number of remodelled schedules designed to incorporate all the remaining league and Challenge Cup fixtures.
Those rejigged schedules have left McDermott concerned. In an attempt to cram in all the remaining games – which is still the governing bodies’ stated aim – the schedules that he has seen require playing three games in a week on a number of occasions throughout the season.
Given the physical demands of a sport such as rugby league, McDermott says that’s wishful thinking.
“You can't play three 80-minute games too often,” he says. “You might get away with it once out of every six months, but the format I've seen is that we're potentially going to play four midweek games. Now that's almost untenable; you can't do that.”
As a possible solution, the Wolfpack coach is suggesting tinkering with the format of the games.
Rather than play two 40-minute halves, he says that the sport should consider playing four 15-minute quarters. It is a serious proposal, one that he has outlined in a letter to be published in a prominent rugby league magazine.
He understands the idea might upset some of the sport’s purists, but given the unique situation that rugby league, and the entire sports world, finds itself, he feels it’s something worth exploring.
“It’s a very unique suggestion and I know, ordinarily, people would shoot that down and say, ‘No, that’s ridiculous, that’s such a dramatic change,’” McDermott says. “But we are in ridiculous circumstances, aren’t we?”
While the format would allow for more commercial breaks during broadcasts, allowing advertisers more opportunity to run their advertisements, more importantly it would be beneficial for the health of players.
In his 14 years as a head coach, to say nothing of his playing career, McDermott says that anecdotally, bringing a player off at the 60-minute mark of a game allows them to recover better, and substantially more quickly, than running them out for the entire 80 minutes.
“What you get to do is keep the players fresh, their fuel tanks don’t go into that red zone,” he says. “When a player’s only played 60 minutes as opposed to 80, quite often 48 hours later he’s ready to go again.”
The other advantage to his proposed format is to preserve the spectacle itself. Tired players often make for bad games, he says, with teams playing conservatively and trying to keep possession rather than making expansive plays, the sort of style that the Wolfpack has come to be known for.
When the sport comes back, putting on exciting displays will only help bring fans back through the gates again, McDermott says. And notable colleagues in the sport who he has mentioned the idea to all think it has real merit.
The onus is now on those who run the sport to do what’s right, by the players, the sponsors and the fans, he adds.
“There’s a real sense of duty here to make sure that we’re not getting blood out of a stone to a certain degree.”