'A hard man with a huge heart' - Rugby, military communities mourn the loss of Counties hero Mac McCallion

Mac McCallion left an indelible mark on his players and many more people beyond rugby.

The former Counties, Blues and Fiji coach, who also served as an SAS soldier, died after a battle with cancer. Source: 1 NEWS

Former Counties Manukau captain Errol Brain said McCallion didn't just coach rugby.

"We had a lot of success together," he said.

"As a team he shaped us as men. For us, that's probably the strongest memory."

McCallion played for Counties and was a Maori All Black, before coaching.

With Brain as his skipper, McCallion guided the famous Counties Manukau Steelers team of the mid 1990's - an unfashionable bunch, but a side which made two NPC finals and were headlined by Joeli Vidiri and a 20-year-old Jonah Lomu.

Brain said McCallion had a large impact on the dominant winger.

"Mac would sit him down, tell him like it is, give him his responsibility, tell him where he sat in the team with regards to rolls and Jonah would respond to it.

"Jonah came to us as a loose forward and ended up being a winger and it was Mac that found that," former Counties manager Gary Carter said.

McCallion went on to help coach the star-studded Original Blues Super Rugby team as professional rugby took hold.

Head coach of the time, Sir Graham Henry, said McCallion should have taken over the squad when he left the job in 1998.

"He expected guys to go to the edge and play within the law, but be right on the edge and play with enthusiasm and physicality and the boys respected that."

Brain said players responded to him for one simple reason.

"They liked the way he coached, because he was very honest."

The other side of McCallion was his 20-year army career where he spent time in the Burma and Malaya campaigns as well as time with the SAS fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.

The hard man with a huge heart will be farewelled next Wednesday at the SAS Base and RSA in Papakura.