Remembering Mike McClennan 1944-2019

Former Kiwi and long-time coach Mike McClennan’s spirit will hang over the double internationals between New Zealand and Australia at WIN Stadium in Wollongong tonight.

His body was found on Tuesday after he had been missing for a week.

Both the Kiwis and the Kiwi Ferns will pay their respects to McClennan (Kiwi #488) by wearing black armbands in their Tests against the Kangaroos and the Jillaroos.

Before the Oceania Cup encounter between the Kiwis and Australia, a moment’s silence will also be observed to honour McClennan along with Australian rugby league great Eddie Lumsden who passed away recently.

McClennan’s funeral will be held in Auckland at 3.00pm tomorrow (Saturday).

With links to both Ponsonby and Mount Wellington during his club career, McClennan’s only Test was one of the greatest in New Zealand’s history – the stunning 24-3 win over Australia at Carlaw Park in 1971.

He was then selected for the history-making tour to Great Britain and France later that year when the Kiwis won both Test series in England and France. He played in 11 tour matches (scoring two tries) but wasn’t used in any of the six Tests played.

McClennan was the only specialist fullback selected for the tour and was used in the position in four of the six matches before the first Test against Great Britain with Bob McGuinn and John O’Sullivan used in the other two.

History records that coach Lory Blanchard then pulled off a huge surprise – and masterstroke – when he decided winger John Whittaker would play at fullback in the first Test, a role he would star in for the rest of the series and against France.

By 1972 McClennan had switched his focus to coaching, which would see him become one of New Zealand’s most successful, innovative – and outspoken - coaches.

He dominated the Auckland club scene in the 1980s achieving multiple Fox Memorial premiership triumphs with the Mount Albert Lions and Northcote Tigers before coaching St Helens in England from 1990-1993.

As well as being an assistant Kiwi coach during Graham Lowe’s reign in the 1980s and also being an assistant coach for Mark Graham at the Vodafone Warriors, McClennan coached Tonga at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup when the Tongans came within one point of stunning the Kiwis.

In a career which featured many leftfield tactics and tricks, one he pulled off while at St Helens stands out above them all. It’s scarcely credible now but Saints scored a try from deliberately heading the ball.

It unfolded this way: Saints were playing Sheffield Eagles at Knowsley Road and were attacking when they produced an unforgettable moment.

As the ball landed in the hands of John Harrison (6ft 7in), he intentionally headed the ball out of his hands and into the in-goal area. The looping header was chased and touched down by Kiwi George Mann and the try was awarded.

There were no rules to prevent teams heading the ball forward at the time and McClennan confirmed Saints had planned it before the game.

St Helens players had even asked the referee if they could attempt the play and he said it was perfectly legal.

WATCH GEORGE MANN’S HEADED TRY

Saints won 34-17 but the incident stirred up much controversy with heading the ball forward subsequently outlawed days later.

It was one of many tactics which summed up McClennan’s thinking about the game.

Throughout the week rugby league people around the globe have paid tribute to McClennan, among them this wonderful piece from Mike Critchley in the St Helens Star:

 

The passing of former Saints coach Mike McClennan, at the age of 75, after a battle with severe dementia is a desperately sad ending for a man whose life brought colour, dedication, integrity and innovation to rugby league.

The outpouring of messages, and those thoughts and prayers from fans and former players during the search for him and upon the sad discovery on Tuesday, underline what an impact the popular Kiwi had during his three-year stay in St Helens.

Many of those expressing their condolences are those who played under him, or took their first fledgling steps on the Knowsley Road terraces during the early 90s.

And although the coaches who followed added bits to it to complete the jigsaw, McClennan’s work from 1990 onwards arguably laid the building blocks for the Saints team to progress back to being top dogs in the teeth of fierce competition from Wigan.

Although McClennan was a relatively unknown coach on this side of the world when he took on the Saints hot-seat in 1990, he had already built up a strong stock in the game in his native New Zealand.

At international level McClennan played in the Kiwis famous 24-3 win over Australia at Carlaw Park in 1971 and later that year toured Britain with the series-winning Kiwis in 1971. McClennan could play full back or centre and knew where the try line was.

After hanging up his playing boots, McClennan took to coaching where he guided Mt Albert Lions to five Grand Final successes in the 80s and then added another premiership at Northcote Tigers in 1989. During that time he also assisted Graham Lowe in coaching the rejuvenated Kiwi national side that was giving Australia a run for its money.

McClennan was the man who the Saints board turned to get the ship back on to an even keel again – something he more than achieved in his three years at Knowsley Road, between 1990-93.

Saints, still reeling from the effects of the infamous 27-0 defeat at Wembley, with a hangover that had lasted deep into the following season, were in desperate need of a new direction.

Patchy performances on the pitch, a lack of ambition off it and a growing discontent on the terraces – all played out while neighbours Wigan swelled their gates and became an invincible machine - increased the urgency.

Saints were so far off the pace that the board took the drastic action of sacking legend Alex Murphy in early 1990 and recruited the New Zealander as head coach.

It did the trick and soon Saints were soon ‘On the march with Macker’s Army.’ There was a bounce that comes with a cup run, alas they suffered a heart-breaking late defeat by Wigan in the Challenge Cup semi-final defeat.

They reached Wembley the following year – beating champions Widnes in the semi and came ever so close to beating Wigan beneath the twin towers, losing 13-8. That seemed to be the pattern – of the era, Saints getting so, so close with the gap closing.

There were landmark games against the Cherry and Whites, like the Lancashire Cup semi win in 1991 en route to picking up his first trophy, and the 41-6 win of Boxing Day 1992 when the crowd volume dial on the Scaff was switched up to 11.

That season Saints, under the passionate and outspoken McClennan, had regained their verve and vigour, and only lost the league title on points difference. The end of year will be recalled for that compelling Good Friday 8-all draw at Central Park in which Kevin Ward suffered a career-ending broken leg.

It would have been a travesty had that year ended without silverware, so it was pleasing to see McClennan guide the side to the Premiership Trophy Final win over a Wigan at Old Trafford.

McClennan was different; Saints’ first overseas head coach brought an innovative approach that was ahead of his time.

He immediately struck up a rapport with assistant coach Frankie Barrow and they became close friends – bouncing ideas off each other – quite literally in one instance.

In 6ft 7 John Harrison Saints possessed the tallest man in the game, so the two coaches hatched a cunning plan – even getting the permission off John Holdsworth ahead of the game against Sheffield Eagles.

Close to the line Harrison propelled the ball forward with his head, with George Mann racing past the baffled Eagles defenders to touch down. The rules were soon changed to outlaw it – but it had done the trick in geeing the team up.

At the time McClennan told the Star: “George’s try resurrected Saints’ confidence when we were on shaky ground – a confidence that must cause some people to question the wisdom of their words when their team had their backs against the wall.

“Cowboys pull out the arrow and bite the bullet. In the face of adversity my team showed some grit.”

His Mike’s Men column in the Star had a certain style that had many a reader seeking out the Oxford English Dictionary – and raised plenty of smiles.

In one of those he used his inimitable turn of phrase to try and boost the crowd for the visit of Wigan by declaring: “It is now important that every Saints supporter brings a friend, a neighbour, wife or someone else’s wife and let the roar at Knowsley Road be heard at Central Park!”

There were other quirks to his game – like introducing the players to royal jelly supplements and importing a cast iron tackling sled to improve their contact.

The club appeared to regain its ambition and there were some prudent signings while McClennan was at the helm. Whether that was signing up Kevin Ward in the twilight of his career to be the team’s enforcer or bringing in Chris Joynt from Oldham, Anthony Sullivan from Hull KR and Sonny Nickle from Sheffield – players who would bring long service in the glory years that would follow.

And he was instrumental in bringing in a real crowd favourite in fellow New Zealander Jarrod McCracken during the 1992-93 campaign – a player that brought in a real ‘up and at em’ approach.

But it was nevertheless a tough time – given the strength of the Wigan juggernaut – epitomised by Gary Connolly’s enticement across the lump. Injuries hit a thin squad and form suffered. Consequently, McClennan’s time ended in early 1993.

He returned to England two years later, in charge of the Tonga team that very nearly pulled off a World Cup shock against the Kiwis in 1995.

And he retained an affinity with and affection for the town and rather poignantly was wearing his Black and Red training jacket from his era at Saints when he went missing from the rest home last week.

Once a Saint, always a Saint.

Our thoughts are with Maureen his wife for 58 years and son Brian and the McClennan family at this sad time.

Rest in peace, Mike.

 

Both the Vodafone Warriors the Kiwis also passed on their sympathies earlier in the week.

“On behalf of everyone here at the Vodafone Warriors, we wish to extend our deepest sympathies to Brian and his extended family,” said Vodafone Warriors CEO Cameron George.

“The rugby league community is a close-knit one and today we are all mourning the loss of one of our own.

“Mike was a wonderful ambassador for our game and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and close friends.”

The New Zealand Rugby League also expressed its sadness and extended its sympathies to the McClennan family.

“This is terribly sad for Brian and the McClennan family as well as our rugby league community,” said New Zealand Rugby League CEO Greg Peters.

“We are all feeling for the family at this time, especially in a week when the Kiwis are about to play the Kangaroos.

“Mike had the deepest passion for rugby league. He was a proud Kiwi international and went on to achieve so much as a coach both in New Zealand and in England.

“We pass on our deepest sympathies.”

McClennan’s passing further thins the ranks of the great 1971 Kiwi side; he is the eighth member of the team who has passed away.

Earlier this year second rower Bill Deacon (Kiwi #445) died in Wagga Wagga at the age of 75 while utility John O’Sullivan (#493) passed away in Christchurch aged 68 last year, a little more than a month after the legendary Phil Orchard (#475) died in Rotorua a day after his 70th birthday.

The other five who have passed away are prop Henry Tatana (#455), who died aged 53 in 1998, hooker Bill Burgoyne (#487) at the age of 52 in 1999, prop Doug Gailey (#476) aged 59 in 2007, winger Bob McGuinn (#481) at 64 in 2012 and loose forward Tony Kriletich (#459) aged 72 in 2016.