Tough coaching pays off for Leon
BY GEOFF MOFFETT
He went on to a stellar career with the All Blacks, but Tasman Makos coach Leon MacDonald had thugs and gods against him in his teenage rep debut for Marlborough, Geoff Moffett reports.
Could a 16-year-old future All Black have a shakier start to a representative rugby career? As debut stories go, Leon MacDonald’s is hard to top. Making his dream start for Marlborough as a raw but promising teenager, he was felled by a punch in the head and then found himself in the grips of an earthquake that had spectators fleeing from the Westport grandstand.
The welcome-to-rep-rugby whack in the face happened just 30 seconds into the game against Buller, and while he was still seeing stars, Leon wondered why the Westport stand was moving from side to side.
His rep debut coincided with a 6.7-magnitude quake centred in Arthurs Pass that had rugby patrons – and players – sitting on the ground until the tremors died away. The game soon resumed.
That June 1994 shocker was the beginning of a 15-year career that would see Leon play 33 games for Marlborough, 122 for the Crusaders and 56 tests for the All Blacks. The only box not ticked was Rugby World Cup winner – but more of that later.
The Westport initiation into tough provincial rugby in the last of the amateur days wasn’t the last bang in the head for MacDonald. A history of concussions would eventually bring his All Black career to an end.
That star-studded career also took him to Japan, twice – ended by another concussion injury. But now Leon has returned to where it all began; home to Marlborough and to the head coaching job at his beloved Tasman Makos.
In fact, as far as Blenheim goes, Leon hasn’t moved far at all. He and wife Hayley and their four children live in Riverlands, not far from the home where Leon was raised with his two elder sisters.
His young days were centred around rugby in winter and cricket in summer. Chilly Saturdays were spent at the Redwood Club, now part of Harlequins, where dad Raymond was a stalwart.
As a five-year-old Leon couldn’t wait for Saturday mornings. He was serious about his footy, setting the tone for a career that earned him a reputation as the ultimate team man; someone who was courageous and always up for the physical challenge.
“I never thought about anything other than the enjoyment and wanting to do well for the team and stuff. Anything more than that probably didn’t come ’til I got to 1st XV rugby.”
That also coincided with his introduction to Kieran Keane, the Marlborough Boys’ College coach, a man who would play a key part in Leon’s life over the next 20 years.
“He was tough on me, which was good in hindsight.” If he dropped a ball at trainings, he’d get a blast from Keane, or a half-time rev-up if he’d made a poor decision in a 1st XV match. “It taught me I had to concentrate every time, and that you get what you deserve.”
Tough coaching paid off as the young Leon was selected for the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ team.
He had his local heroes like Ian Stark and Frank Marfell. “These sort of guys you grew up idolising. I was lucky enough to play alongside Starky, which was a highlight for me.” He also remembers the ‘big deal’ when Wayne Shelford and Frano Botica came to town, playing for North Harbour against Marlborough.
Inevitably, MacDonald was soon in the Marlborough Red Devils, selected at the age of just 16 for that debut game in Westport. It was the first of his dreams-come-true.
His big breakthrough came when Kieran Keane called on his old Canterbury cohort Wayne Smith, who’d just taken over as Crusaders coach in 1997, and suggested he come to Blenheim to see the youngster play. The former All Black first five watched Leon from the Lansdowne Park stands and was impressed enough to select him for a Canterbury development squad tour to Argentina. Soon, Leon MacDonald was selected for the Crusaders and left the security of Blenheim for a new life in Christchurch, boarding at first and joining the Burnside club.
Professional rugby was in its infancy and many of the players had come through the old amateur days when privileges like a seat at the back of the team bus had to be earned. “You spoke only when you were spoken to and in the first year you didn’t put a foot out of place. You did your time to earn your way down the back of the bus.”
Leon had been chosen as the back-up No.10 to Andrew Mehrtens, the All Black first five, and didn’t get much game time for the Crusaders, although he got an opportunity at fullback – and took it. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the start but I suppose my skill set from 10 helped.”
The All Black selectors also had Leon in their sights and in 1998 they had him sent to the Chiefs – part of a divvying-up process of No.10s around the country. “I wasn’t keen to go, but I was told to.” It wasn’t the happiest time for MacDonald – or the Chiefs team, which was going through some upheaval – but it signalled the end of Leon’s tenure as a first five-eighth and the beginning of his days as one of the best fullbacks New Zealand has produced.
Not that you’d get MacDonald suggesting such an accolade. “I’ve always been a harsh critic of myself and review my games honestly. I very rarely had a good game in my eyes.”
He played NPC for Canterbury at fullback and started the 1999 season for the Crusaders there, capping off a stellar year by winning the Super championship against the Highlanders. The Crusaders made it three Super 12s in a row the next year, beating the Brumbies in Canberra 20-19.”
After landing at Christchurch airport on the flight home, Leon got the news he’d longed for – an All Blacks call-up. “Someone from the NZRU came on the plane. I was probably still a bit hung-over after partying with the supporters and teammates after the game. It was an amazing feeling to have your name read out as an AB for the first time.”
The initiation into the brotherhood was eased by having Canterbury teammates like Justin Marshall and captain Todd Blackadder around. MacDonald’s debut was against Scotland at Carisbrook.
He felt the pressure of being an All Black, certainly in his first few games. “You’ve got to try to show you belong and you deserve to wear the jersey. Christian Cullen was the starting fullback and I was only getting little bits and pieces off the bench. I really struggled to feel I was making my way in the black jersey.”
When did he feel like he belonged? “I had a test against South Africa in Auckland when I felt I was really part of the team. I got Player of the Match and I felt I deserved to be there.”
Taking over from the legendary Cullen was always going to be tough, but that ‘arrival’ moment heralded a fine All Blacks career that was paused in 2004 (after the disappointment of the semi-final loss to Australia in the World Cup of 2003) by a year spent in Japan. Leon just got better when he resumed with the Crusaders, then the All Blacks in 2005.
“I came back with renewed freshness.
“I was more relaxed and strung together better performances more regularly because I wasn’t over-thinking things, and I enjoyed my leadership role with the Crusaders and ABs.”
In his 56 tests for the All Blacks (2000-2003 and 2005-2008), Rangi, as he was known to his teammates, scored 141 points (14 tries, 25 conversions, seven penalties). He also played three times for New Zealand Maori, scoring 10 points. Add to that 70 NPC games – 37 for Canterbury and 33 for Marlborough.
Leon says his All Black highlight was the three-test whitewash of the British and Irish Lions in 2005. But he says probably the most enjoyable two weeks of his rugby career was being part of the New Zealand Maori team, which also scored an historic win over the Lions in Hamilton.
The two World Cup failures of 2003 and 2007 “leave a bit of a stone in my shoe, I suppose. We trained really hard and tried everything we could”.
His career ended after a head knock and concussion in 2008 playing for the ABs against South Africa. It was one of several concussions for the fearless MacDonald, and when he suffered another serious blow playing in Japan the next year, he decided he could no longer risk his health.
“I always thought I was one knock away from retiring, and I said that to Hayley, that the next one, it would be enough.”
Leon says he hadn’t thought about immediately taking up coaching after his playing days, but he was shoulder-tapped by Tasman chairman Shane Drummond and put his application in for the Makos position, under his schooldays’ mentor Kieran Keane.
Coming home was an attraction for the whole family – Hayley is also from Marlborough. “I did feel like I owed Tasman rugby. I was very thankful for the way Marlborough gave me opportunities. Those three years playing for Marlborough as a young man were invaluable and Kieran’s input coaching me at 1st XV and senior club was a massive influence, so it all seemed to fit.”
Even with MacDonald’s two-year contract with the Crusaders as assistant coach, he will still be coaching Tasman next year.