McCall to keep running through walls for Ulster
As the Danske Bank Schools' Cup begins in earnest this weekend, a look around the fresh-faced squad that Ulster take to Oyonnax tomorrow (1pm kick-off) offers a reminder that not a great deal of time has passed since the likes of Kyle McCall were showcasing their talent on that very stage.
When Les Kiss took over at the Kingspan Stadium at the start of November, the Australian stressed the importance of building a side through the academy and he has been true to his word with the likes of Alan O'Connor, Rory Scholes and Stuart McCloskey all playing an important role but it is McCall who has been the season's undoubted success story.
The Ballynahinch prop, having made his first start for the province in the win over Dragons as recently as nine weeks ago, has since become a feature in the side at loosehead.
He laughed at the memory of his initial exposure to what was then Ravenhill, captaining Wallace High in a Schools' Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of a Belfast Royal Academy team that contained his current team-mates Iain Henderson and McCloskey, and said: "That seems like a long time ago.
"To go on and get the chance to be a professional rugby player has been great.
"I hope I can be part of the set-up for a long time."
That much seems certain for a man who turned 24 just last Saturday, even if the recent string of praise sits uneasily on his modest shoulders.
"I'm just glad for the chance to play," he said. "It's been a massive rollercoaster for me and it is sooner than I expected.
"I've been part of the squad for two or three years now. To be involved in the squad is great, but I got the opportunity of a start against the Dragons and that was something special.
"December was then a great month for us and for me personally but trying to play well week in, week out is still the target. There's so much competition in my position with Callum Black and Andy Warwick that you have to perform to keep the jersey. That's what I'm trying to do."
Speaking of the men who handed him his latest opportunity, McCall has nothing but praise for the province's coaching set-up.
"It's great to have Les here. What he's brought has been excellent and everyone buys into it. It's about playing with a bit of work-rate within the play. Everyone feeds off Les and it's a good squad to be involved in.
"There's good development in the academy and Les wants to feed that through the whole squad. Les, Joe (Barakat), Doakie (Neil Doak) and Clarkie (Allen Clarke), they're all at academy sessions so that everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. The boys then have an easier transition into the senior squad.
"That's how I felt anyway, and I think Al (Alan O'Connor) and Scholesy were the same."
Such has been his rapid progression this winter, there was even speculation that he may force his way into the 50-strong gathering that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt summoned to Carton House for a training camp at the beginning of this week.
That wasn't to be, the Irish cupboard being particularly well stocked at loosehead, and McCall admits he is yet to even daydream about a Test debut.
"I'm not looking at that at all really," he deflected.
"I just want to play well for Ulster and if anything more comes from it then great. I've only just started doing that though."
Tomorrow sees McCall in the No.1 jersey once more and returning to the town where he was due to make his European debut.
That game, back in November, was postponed after the Paris terror atrocities and McCall has since made three Champions Cup appearances.
"It was a game I was really looking forward to," he recalled. "It got cancelled, obviously, but we're expecting the same this week.
"The atmosphere was immense within the town. The night before there were parties and everything around the town.
"It's a big occasion for the town and they'll carry that onto the pitch.
"They're going to want to play rugby on that surface and we'll see them run it. We need to front up to that and play our own game."
Victory for Ulster is expected and, after last month's double over Toulouse, would keep the province on track for a place in the quarter-final stages.
Saracens, who Ulster meet at Allianz Park a week from today, will be tough to overhaul at the top of Pool One but a points tally in the high teens would provide a healthy chance of progression as one of three best runners-up.
Even with every point so valuable, McCall is still not one to countenance chasing a try-bonus before the game is won.
"It's definitely not a straightforward task. We're going there to get a win and that's tough to do no matter who you're against," McCall added.
"They'll be confident in their back yard, it's a massive challenge.
"I take everything week in, week out. It's preparing for Oyonnax this week and when Saracens comes, it comes.
"After that we look at Oyonnax back here. It's a tough task, three European Cup games in a row.
"We want to build through the three games and build something special.
"We need to dig deep, all of us. There's going to be opportunities for boys to play and they have to step up and take their chance."
McCall provides a fine example of just what can happen if you do.