Chris McKenna, the former Australian international, spoke to League Express following his surprise move to Doncaster for the 2008 season.
How did you get into Rugby League?
I’m from a family of 11 kids. My brothers played and I just jumped on the back of that. I’m from Brisbane and grew up watching us win the State of Origin most years. Then the Broncos came into the competition when I was about 14 and I then signed for them when I was 17.
Do you remember breaking into the Broncos first grade?
I made my debut in 1993 in the centres against Paul McGregor of Illawarra but Steve Renouf was in front of me in that position at the Broncos so I didn’t see much future there because there were also guys like Chris Johns, Willie Carne and Mick Hancock in the three-quarters. Then Terry Matterson hurt his sternum and I got a chance in the forwards for the first time against Newcastle and I won the man of the match award.
What do you remember of the World Club Championship match that the Broncos lost to Wigan?
I came off the bench in that game but didn’t get a lot of game time. It wasn’t high scoring but, even so, when I got on the game was gone because Wigan were dominating. Their defence was superb and they had a great team.
You also played at Sheffield for a short spell.
That was just for an off-season and I only played four games because I broke my jaw. The games in England toughened me up and when I got back to Brisbane, I cemented my place in first grade. I also played in England for London in 1995 during the Centenary Season which was a great experience and I managed to squeeze in some travelling when the World Cup was on.
Why did you leave Brisbane?
I probably didn’t back myself enough. I saw myself as a centre but there were so many other guys in front of me so I decided to sign with the South Queensland Crushers. It was a secret deal and I didn’t even tell my family about it. The Crushers were coming into the competition in 1995 and I signed for them well before that. I still had a year at the Broncos and I didn’t want Wayne Bennett to know because he’d have probably dropped me from the team – he’s done that to other players since. But the main reason for joining the Crushers was to play under Billy Gardner who had coached me in the lower grades at Brisbane and also at Sheffield. But they sacked Billy, replacing him with Bob Linder and I considered getting out of my contract. I stuck it out though and spent a year there but it wasn’t a happy time for me. The Crushers ended up going bust and I only got two-thirds of my contract money.
You then moved to Cronulla.
That was the move that sparked my career. Shane Richardson had tried to get me for a few years even before I went to the Broncos when he was at Easts in Brisbane. I had six years at the Sharks and got into the Queensland and Australia sides while I was there. The highlights were making the Super League final in 1997, the year that there were split competitions and in 1999 when we won the Minor Premiership. We were also very close to reaching the Grand Final in 2001.
You played in the extended World Club Championship in 1997. Having experienced English football, did you expect the Australian sides to dominate like they did?
I expected our sides to win more games but I didn’t think it would be so one-sided. The standard in England had improved since 1993 and 1995 when I was last over because of the move to summer. But that competition made the Super League improve even more because it underlined just how much further they had to go.
What do you remember of your Origin debut in 1999?
It was a very tough and low-scoring series. All three games were tight and the series were drawn but we lifted the Shield because we’d won it in 1998. My debut was at Suncorp and we won 9-8 with Mat Rogers kicking all of our points. Then we lost 12-10 in atrocious conditions in Sydney before the 10-all draw in Brisbane. I started all three games in the second row.
Which position do you prefer?
The second row because you’re more involved and can do all the tackling you want.
Was it then frustrating to sign for Leeds and be played in the centres in 2003?
Yes, I didn’t want to play there but that’s what they bought me as. They even used Chev Walker in the second row and me in the centre and it should have been the other way round. That first year was a nightmare because I tore my chest in the first game and I wasn’t the same player for most of the year. I had my best games at the end of the season, back in the second row.
How did you get on with Daryl Powell?
Not too bad. He was still learning as a coach though.
Was that a problem?
He wasn’t ready because he was still learning. He had good ideas but didn’t know how to put them in place but that’s an experience thing. I don’t want to bag him though.
So was the appointment of Tony Smith as coach the main reason why the Rhinos won the Super League in 2004?
Yes. I’ve played under John Lang, Wayne Bennett and Chris Anderson but, technically, Tony is the best coach I’ve had. It was exciting to play with such talented young players who have gone on to great things but we had a good mix with guys like Dave Furner in there too. It was a great side to be involved in and winning the final gave me my first medal. I’d lost the Aussie Super League final in 1997 and the 2003 Challenge Cup final to Bradford. I’d also lost semi-finals so the 2004 Grand Final meant a lot to me.
Why did you leave the Rhinos and move to Odsal?
I didn’t want to leave Leeds but they only offered me one year and too big a paycut. There was no point me being on the other side of the world if I wasn’t going to save money. Bradford offered me two years and more money so it made sense. Souths wanted me too but to play for a quality team here was more attractive to me than playing for a struggling team in a tough competition. My first year there was hard with things going on behind the scenes and I broke my jaw at Easter but the guys dug in and we performed pretty well, almost getting to Old Trafford. That semi-final at Hull could have gone either way. I enjoyed my time at the Bulls. Steve McNamara has the potential to be a great coach and he’s learned a lot from Brian Smith. It was also good to play with a bloke like Sam Burgess who can be one of the great front rowers if he can stay injury free. He puts 100% into everything.
Why did you drop down two divisions and join Doncaster?
The body isn’t getting any younger and the game is getting harder. My heart wasn’t in Super League anymore and I played the second half of last season with an injury, needing knee and shoulder operations. I’ve needed five operations in the last two years and couldn’t get myself up for another year in Super League and the money on offer didn’t make it worthwhile staying full-time. Dropping a couple of divisions is ideal because I’m pursuing a couple of business opportunities while just training a couple of times a week. I know Craig Harrison, the chairman, through Danny McGuire who he represents and I knew how ambitious he is. I’d joked about going there earlier in the year but then it started to look a good option.
You must have been delighted with the appointment of Ellery Hanley as coach.
The appointment is great and it shows just how ambitious the club is. But to date, I”ve only had one session under him as I’ve just got back from Australia but everyone seems delighted with the impact he’s made so far. They’ve made some great signings like Corey Lowrie from the Warriors as well as Andreas Baeur and Graeme Horne so everything is in place and it’s up to the players to perform now. If we don’t get promoted, I’ll be shattered.