How losing a mate helped shape Tate McDermott's rugby journey

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

Perspective borne from tragedy has both freed Tate McDermott from expectation and spurred him to become the best footballer he can be as he strives to return the Reds to Super Rugby dominance.

When childhood mate Matthew Barclay drowned at the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships on the Gold Coast seven years ago, a devastated McDermott turned his back on the sport to concentrate on rugby.

But it also handed him rare perspective and an understanding of mateship that has led to a desire to stay with the Reds and achieve something special with a playing group he counts as close friends.

That day on Kurrawa beach remains cemented in McDermott's mind.

"I just loved the surf," he said.

"I had some of my best mates there but I guess it all changed because I had a really good mate, Matthew Barclay, who passed away.

"We grew up together and we spent every weekend on the beach together and that put me off the sport a little bit.

"That was a big moment in changing from the surf pathway, cutting it off and sticking to rugby."

The Reds celebrate after Tate McDermott scores to seal the match. Photo: Getty Images

McDermott and Barclay were members of the Maroochydore Surf Club competing at "Aussies", the biggest event on the surf lifesaving calendar.

"We were watching from the tent when it happened, I didn't actually see it happen but they all came in and everyone was like: 'where's Matt?'

"Then we saw his board floating off."

Barclay disappeared in rough seas while competing in a board race, with a coroner later ruling he had drowned after being knocked unconscious following a "catastrophic event" on a shallow sandbank.

"I was 15 and it was obviously pretty tragic, I'd never been through that," McDermott said.

"I'd lost a grandparent but losing a good friend was obviously pretty tragic."

Already a keen rugby player, McDermott turned his attention solely to the sport, winning Queensland Schoolboys representation from Sunshine Coast Grammar before heading into the sevens program, where he played for Australia.

"From a halfback's point of view, it really helps with your running side of it, it's huge for those little skills - learning how to catch-pass and defend one-on-one," McDermott said.

"But obviously not the passing off the deck or the box kicking, so that's why I had to get out of there unless I wanted to be a longterm sevens player.

"Sevens is a good pathway for youngsters, it's just getting a bit more difficult now to play both with the emphasis on being a fulltime sevens player."

Tate McDermott in action at the Sydney Sevens in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

The 15-man game was always where it was at for McDermott.

He was among 53,000 fans packed into Suncorp Stadium to watch the Reds win the Super Rugby title in 2011, a former fullback and flyhalf who had started wearing the no.9 with his school team needing a halfback who soaked in every run and pass made by then-Queensland halfback Will Genia.

"It was surreal," he said.

"I've still got that DVD that they sent out after we won it.

"When those highlights come up, it gives you goosebumps knowing that you've played in that team."

McDermott may have started the Super Rugby season on the bench but he has grabbed the opportunity to start at scrumhalf and cement his place as Queensland's starting no.9.

"I always was just interested in whatever was best for the team - if off the bench is where Thorny (Reds coach Brad Thorn) thinks I can make an impact (that's fine).

"I want to see this team do well and whether that's with me in the 21 or 9 jersey, so be it.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want that 9 jersey though, I think everyone plays footy to be starting.

Reds scrumhalf Moses Sorovi. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart Walmsley

"I've got a really good opportunity but I've also got really good competition in Moses (Sorovi) and Scotty coming through and then Bobby (Tuttle) when he's back.

"They keep me on my toes and I've got a long way to go in terms of my passing and my kicking to really be that world class (half) that there has been here in the past in that jersey."

The fact McDermott knows he has room for improvement and is so driven to develop is part of his attraction - part of that perspective he learned so early in his life.

And it's his mates he wants to perform for as much as anyone.

"The thing is, we all need to stay here," he said.

"There's four of us at the moment that play golf together - me, (Harry) Hockings, Zaccy (Isaac Lucas), and Jock Campbell - and all we're all really good mates.

"But there needs to be that crop of players coming through that want to be here and want to see this team do well.

"Not that we've said we're going to be those players but we don't want to see Ballymore and the Reds get down, we want to see those crowds coming back and the Reds doing well.

"We're definitely invested in that and Thorny's got that goal to get back to what we were in 2011 and we're all buying into it.

"So from a younger player's point of view, we're all keen, we're all staying here and we're loving it."

Tate McDermott training with the Reds. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

McDermott's sniping runs and instinctive darts around the ruck have been highlights of Reds wins against the Sunwolves and Stormers.

And he'll be at it again on Sunday morning, facing one of the biggest tests of his young career when the Reds face the Bulls at altitude in Pretoria.

His recent efforts have even led to his name being thrown into the World Cup mix.

"I've grown up watching (the Wallabies) my whole life and  that's a dream of mine. It's still years away but to put on that gold jersey would be unreal," he said.

"I don't want to do it just to claim it, I want to be a player that creates opportunities.

"But I'm really invested (in the Reds) and putting in time to try and get better for the team and make this team unreal."

The Reds take on the Bulls in Pretoria on Sunday, April 14, kicking off at 1:15am, LIVE on FOX SPORTS.