It could hardly be a more intimidating return to the game Mark McLinden played as a schoolboy.
Firstly, a trip to Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, the 50,000-plus capacity home of the 2007 Super 14 champions, the Bulls, then six days days later a date with the Stormers at thunderous Newlands in Cape Town.
Chris Barrett writes for the Sydney Morning Herald that bigger and uglier men than McLinden have been left crippled with self-doubt at the mere thought of it.
The former Canberra Raiders jack of all trades, signed by the Queensland Reds in the wake of the departures overseas of Chris Latham and Clinton Schifcofske, admits the team’s opening two fixtures of the provincial competition loom as a huge challenge.
“It’s a bit daunting but also an exciting opportunity,” he said at Ballymore today.
“I’d probably rather the games in South Africa to be a couple of months into the season, but if I get the opportunity I’ll be ready.”
With Latham now playing at Worcester in England’s Guinness Premiership and Irish club Ulster having snapped up the services of McLinden’s former Raiders teammate Schifcofske, the Reds’ latest rugby league convert is the obvious solution to fill the fullback vacancy.
But while he’s been training with the squad at Ballymore since late October, McLinden is yet to play a professional game of rugby and concedes the switch of codes has been no seamless process to date.
“I’m a long way off where I want to be at the moment,” the 29-year-old said.
“I’d like to be playing No.15 but I have no expectations at all at this stage. All I know is I’m willing to learn the game as well as I can and go from there.
“Things like the breakdown are not the sort of thing you can learn in the pre-season. It’s not until you play the game, in the heat of the battle, that you can adjust properly.”
Reds head coach Phil Mooney has also run uncapped teenagers Rod Davies, a former Brisbane Broncos lower grader, and Aidan Toua, who came through the ranks at Churchie, at fullback in the pre-season but McLinden’s experience ensures he will be given first crack at the No.15 shirt.
“He’ll certainly start in that position in the trials,” Mooney said.
“He’s worked extremely hard in the off-season. He’s far more comfortable now with rugby than when he first started with us. Now he really just needs to play.”
McLinden’s return to Australia comes after four years spent at Harlequins, formerly the London Broncos, in the English Super League, an experience he relished as much for the opportunities it presented off the field as on it.
“I enjoyed it – it is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
“My only regret is that I didn’t go over there earlier. Growing up in Canberra, and then going straight to the Raiders, it took me a while to realise there was more to the world than living in the one spot.
“If we played on a Friday night a few of us might take off for the weekend to Munich or Dusseldorf or wherever … but not too often because you’ve got to remain pretty focused on the footy.”
Now he’s back in Australia the focus has been on learning the finer points of his new trade.
“Playing fullback in rugby is all about knowing when to kick and when to run every time you touch the ball whereas in league the first four sets are always about running up and taking the tackle,” he said.
The game is not entirely new to McLinden – he played rugby throughout school before making the switch in league at 16 – and he said he had always envisioned returning to the code at some stage of his career.
“When I started at the Raiders there were no Brumbies so it was just a natural progression for me to go into league there,” he said.
“But at some point I wanted to go back to union.”
He said he had also considered a return to the NRL after his time in England and he had been for a time tipped to replace sacked Raiders halfback Todd Carney at his former club.
“Whilst you’re over in England you’re always watching the NRL – it’s the best competition in the world,” he said.
“You do get a bit homesick so I did give that a thought. I had spoken to some clubs about coming back. There is a bit of a shortage in halves [in the NRL] right now, so I think there would have been room for someone like me.”
McLinden was personally recommended by Schifcofske to Reds staff and the Queensland now hope he can replicate his predecessor’s smooth transition from the 13-man game.
“Clinton certainly did adjust fairly seamlessly, there’s no doubt about that,” Mooney said.
“But Mark brings some great qualities to the team, we’re just all excited to see how he’ll go.
The Reds play their first trial game against the Waratahs at Toowoomba on January 24. The opening Super 14 fixture of the season against the Bulls is on February 14.Tweet