Role Models

Irishman McCall's Saracens were once modelled on Munster and Leinster

The former Ulster head coach has masterminded the Premiership club’s rise.

AT THE VERY start of this Champions Cup semi-final week, Rassie Erasmus called Saracens “the team everybody aspires to be like.”

It’s a fair title for the Champions Cup and Premiership holders but their status as the leading club in the European game has been a long time coming.

Mark McCall Mark McCall has masterminded Saracens' rise. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

There’s an Irishman at the helm of what has been an eight-year project but for some reason he doesn’t quite get the plaudits he has earned in his native land.

There’s recognition that Mark McCall is a high-quality coach, but his victories are certainly not lauded in the way that other foreign-based Irish coaches like Bernard Jackman or Conor O’Shea’s have been in the recent past.

Not that it bothers the man himself for a second. Former Ireland international McCall seems genuinely disinterested and possibly even opposed to public applause.

The phrase ‘softly spoken’ was coined with him in mind and when he spoke at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, ahead of the clash with Munster today [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport], one had to actively strain to hear some of his answers.

The quiet nature of his communication with the media belies the sheer impact he has had on Saracens since initially joining as first-team coach in 2009, later graduating into his current role as director of rugby and turning Saracens into European champions who are now looking to be the first English side to win back-to-back titles since Leicester in 2001 and 2002.

As Erasmus pointed out, everyone is looking to emulate Saracens these days but when McCall first helped to kick-start their path to European success, the club looked towards Ireland for role models.

“Eight years ago, when this project began, Munster, Leinster, Wasps, Leicester of old – they were the teams that you wanted to model your club on because of the consistency they had, the continuity in the people that they had,” said McCall yesterday.

“Saracens’ history prior to that was just this turnover of people, staff and players alike, and it didn’t work for the first period of professional rugby. I think there was a lot to learn from Munster and Leinster in that regard.”

Owen Farrell with Mark McCall McCall with out-half Owen Farrell. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Saracens may still have a reputation as a kick-and-chase side in some quarters, but those people clearly haven’t been watching them in recent seasons, as McCall has harnessed the likes of Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and Alex Goode onto existing strengths to create a very rounded team.

The club has spent equal time and energy on improving itself off the pitch, with their ‘Personal Development Programme’ taking on legs of its own since being initiated in 2009.

Monthly visits from speakers from a wide range of backgrounds, vocational workshops with people from different professions, and in-depth lectures in fields like emotional intelligence and conflict management are all part of a programme that was created with the idea of developing well-rounded human beings, as well as rugby players.

“That is huge,” said captain Brad Barritt of Saracens’ PDP. “Early in the juncture of what Mark talks about with the eight-year period, Saracens wasn’t just about creating good rugby players, it was about creating good people.

“We know that a balanced approach to life brings out the best in our players. You know that if a guy is happy outside rugby, in his family life, in his personal development in what he might do outside of rugby, that bodes for the guy being more committed towards Saracens.

“That is ultimately what we want: guys who are passionate about playing for Saracens and who playing for Saracens means the world to them. We have gone a long way into creating a club that holds that badge dear.”

Again, this idea of creating rounded individuals who have grown to love being part of Saracens goes back to the provinces’ historic successes in Europe, according to McCall.

“The strongest thing we have is the relationships that exist now in the organisation – player to player, player to staff, staff to staff – and that is vital, a hallmark of the success of Munster of old, Leinster of old,” said the ex-Ulster head coach.

Brad Barritt with his son Leo after the game Sarries captain Brad Barritt with his son, Leo. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

While Erasmus might have placed them on a pedestal – he’s a wily one, the South African – McCall and Saracens aren’t arrogant enough to believe that they are streets ahead of anyone, particularly not Munster.

Indeed, McCall comes across as a particularly humble man and looks pained at any questions that might lead to him sounding in any way boastful.

He has continued to admire what Munster have been doing, saying yesterday that he has not come across any other side that works as hard for each other as Erasmus’ men do. Saracens might actually challenge them for that honour, meaning it’s high praise from McCall.

He was also impressed by the manner in which the entire province handled the shocking death of Anthony Foley last year, showing that they still possess the greatest emotional intelligence.

“It’s been remarkable, it’s been a masterclass in how to deal with something so terrible,” said McCall. “I don’t know how they did it but they did. They have shown some real class in the weeks and months after that tragedy.”

And when it all comes down to it this afternoon, in front of more than 50,000 people in Dublin, McCall knows better than anyone that those emotional strengths and collective mindsets in both clubs will be the key weapons.

Tactically, he expects Munster to throw something new at Saracens in this semi-final and McCall says his side will have to match the southern province’s endless appetite for work.

“I think they’ve got a really smart coaching team,” said McCall. “Of course we’ve got to be adaptable and flexible on the day and they might hit us with some things that we’ve got to be able to deal with.

Billy Vunipola with head coach Mark McCall McCall's game plan means Billy Vunipola is a passer and a carrier. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Having said that, we’ve got to match their work rate, their intensity on the day. That’s probably going to be the key. Whatever team comes up with the cleverest plays is probably not going to determine the result.”

It’s their biggest ask yet under Erasmus, but the challenge for Munster is to have Saracens looking up to them by the end of the day, just like old times.

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