'I'd be going home in absolute bits that I wasn't able to make my mark'

Zack McCall’s six years with Ulster ended without the hooker making a senior appearance.

THERE ARE THE high-profile rugby players we hear about and hear from all the time, and then there are players like Zack McCall.

McCall is one of those who battle away behind the scenes, experiencing the frustrating ups and downs that are part of professional rugby for so many. 

One step forward, two steps back. A good performance here, an injury there. Progress one week, crushing disappointment the next.

McCall threw every bit of himself into Ulster for more than six years, working his way up from the sub-academy into the senior squad, but last week it was confirmed that the hooker’s time with his native province is over.

The 25-year-old leaves Ulster without having made a senior appearance.

zack-mccall Zack McCall in action for the Ireland U20s in 2015. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The former Ireland U20 international marked his departure with a brief statement on social media in which he aimed to “shine a light for the guys that are on the fringes and remind others that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies” in rugby.

“Professional sport is ruthless,” continued McCall before asking us to “respect the little guy.”

Speaking today, McCall explained what he meant by ‘the little guy.’

“You’ve got the big names, the guys who have done their bit and ground their way to the top,” said McCall on the phone from his girlfriend’s family farm, where he has been based during the lockdown.

“There’s probably 20 or 25 of them in a senior squad but you could have another 10 or 15 guys who haven’t made it yet but are on the same path, trying to achieve the same goals. 

“Those guys are putting as much effort into it as possible but there might be someone doubting them. People might not ever see what they’re doing.”

It’s not that McCall wanted the limelight. All he ever really wanted was a chance to prove himself out on the pitch.

Having been into Motocross as a kid, McCall only took to rugby properly when he went to Wallace High School in Lisburn, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Kyle, who is now a loosehead prop for Ulster.

Zack was a back row in Wallace but, having stopped growing just under the 6ft mark, was encouraged to switch to hooker after finishing school.

McCall tasted the pain of injuries early on, being denied a shot at the Ireland Schools team and then the Ireland U20s as a result, but was thankful to have a second stab at the latter set-up in 2015, when he was underage again.

zac-mccall-with-alan-francis McCall in action for Ballynahinch in the AIL this season. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Despite the recent change of position, McCall started four games for Ireland in that year’s U20 Six Nations, only to be dealt a blow with news that Ulster didn’t have a place for him in their academy the following season.

“I had been on such a high but all of a sudden, it seemed like I was the only one of about 30 guys in the Irish U20s squad who didn’t get an academy spot,” he recalls.

McCall sucked it up and kept at it with the U20s, travelling to the 2015 World Championship in Italy, where he played three times alongside the likes of Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery.

“I was still learning a new position and some people were doubting whether I could throw into a lineout,” says McCall, “but I was able to go to a Junior World Cup in pretty much my first year playing hooker, so I think I proved a few people wrong.”

He kept his head down the following season too, working hard in the Ulster sub-academy while also playing in the AIL with Ballynahinch under Derek Suffern, his old schools coach in Wallace.

Eventually, the academy offer arrived and McCall was in.

But hopes of pushing on towards senior caps never materialised. McCall spent three years in Ulster’s academy and it looked like he would leave at the end of last season until he had two excellent performances for Ulster A at the Cara Cup in Boston in March 2019.

That burst of form, as well as his displays for Ballynahinch as they won Division 1B of the AIL, resulted in Ulster offering him a six-month development contract coming into the 2019/20 campaign and McCall vowed again to show his worth.

He began this season’s Celtic Cup as starting hooker for Ulster A but swiftly felt he was “put on the back-burner a wee bit” as youngster Tom Stewart was chosen ahead of him.

The up-and-down nature of it all had an effect on McCall.

“I’m very much a believer in doing stuff for the team and not trying to be too selfish,” he explains. “When that was happening I’d be going home and to be honest I’d be in absolute bits that I wasn’t able to make my mark.

zack-mccall McCall is a skillful hooker with good footwork and handling ability. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“But then I’d come into training and would try to be a positive influence on younger guys and be a real leader.

“Really, behind it all, I was struggling with my own battles. I’d say I’m a fairly emotional guy and not afraid to express my emotions but with that you have to put on a bit of a poker face.”

He was back out of the trough for the closing games of the campaign, earning a start in the Celtic Cup final against Leinster, the latest peak and “one of the bigger occasions I had in an Ulster shirt.”

McCall’s efforts led to Ulster offering him an extension of his six-month deal until the end of this season, but his time with the province has been finished due to the sport being put on hold. When rugby returns, McCall won’t be with Ulster.

He appreciated the honest feedback as Ulster told him they were happy with their senior hookers – Rob Herring, John Andrew, Adam McBurney – for next season, with Stewart in the academy.

But leaving without a senior cap is tough for McCall to take.

“That was probably the most difficult part for me through the whole process,” he says. 

“It’s awesome seeing some of your best mates doing well on the pitch. You feel good for them, but at the same time I remember being 24th man for the senior team at one stage and there were four or five guys from the academy who got their debuts. 

“I was sitting in the stand watching and buzzing for my mates but also wondering when it would kick-off for me.

“There wasn’t much of a chance to actually prove yourself. I just felt like I wasn’t given the opportunity to go out and prove myself in an Ulster jersey.”

McCall is keen to stress the positives of his time with Ulster, however, underlining how he has made great friends in the province, how he enjoyed travelling for games – the trip to Boston a major highlight – and the competitive nature of the training.

zac-mccall-scores-a-push-over-try McCall on the ball in an Ulster maul against Canada in 2016. Presseye / Brian Little/INPHO Presseye / Brian Little/INPHO / Brian Little/INPHO

Being a pro alongside his older brother is something he’s thankful for too.

“That’s been awesome, travelling to work every day with your brother. He’s one of my best mates now. The bond we have is pretty strong because of it all.

“Through any difficult times I had, he was the only one who could really understand it. You speak to your parents and girlfriend and they would see my frustration and disappointment but not really understand it because they’re not in my position.

“Kyle could see it all from my side, the struggles, and he really helped me through some of the darker times.”

While lockdown means the rugby market is on pause, McCall is hopeful that things will start moving again soon and opportunities begin to open up for players like him who currently don’t have contracts.

His time in Ulster might be over but McCall – who has a science degree and a Level 3 IRFU coaching qualification in his back pocket – isn’t finished with professional rugby yet.

“I’ve dedicated my life to rugby so why not continue? I feel I still have plenty to offer as a player. If I get a chance somewhere, I can let my rugby do the talking.

“I would like to prove a few people wrong and make my point. I’ve only ever known rugby so it would be a sad day to call this the end of the road.”

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