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Once a hero with Ulster, now modest McCall can rule Europe

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 14/05/2016

Quiet man: Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall is hoping to lead his team to Champions Cup glory against Racing 92 in an eagerly awaited final
Quiet man: Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall is hoping to lead his team to Champions Cup glory against Racing 92 in an eagerly awaited final

Mark McCall leads Saracens into today's Champions Cup final with Racing 92 but nobody in Ulster needs reminding that he has already had his hands on European rugby's top prize.

As his home province prepared to defeat Colomiers at Lansdowne Road in 1999, the Bangor man and team captain had already suffered the prolapsed disk that would end his career but, after Harry Williams' men created history, it was he who hoisted the trophy skywards alongside his close friend David Humphreys.

What could have been seen as the end for McCall was, in fact, just the beginning and today he sits as one of the foremost rugby coaches in the northern hemisphere.

His rugby playing days started at Bangor Grammar where he was a prominent force and captain during the north Down school's mid-1980s heyday.

A gifted cricketer too - his father Conn, who sadly passed away before his son's coaching success, had represented Ireland at the sport - but it was rugby where he would truly excel.

Committed in defence and adept at reading the game, he was a stalwart at inside centre for Ulster, who first dipped his toes in the professional waters at London Irish and won 13 caps for Ireland.

He made his debut off the bench against New Zealand in 1992 and made his first start against those same All Blacks later in the year.

His final internationals came in the summer of 1998, starting two Tests in South Africa.

Following 1999 and Ulster's European glory, there was a brief flirtation with a career as a solicitor and as coach of both Ireland under-21 and Ireland A before being brought back to what was then Ravenhill by current Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons.

When Solomons moved on, taking up a position with Northampton, McCall was the man handed the reins.

While still only in his thirties when given responsibility for Ulster, his tenure began brightly.

There was a trust in youth that saw the likes of Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris emerge, as well as both Rory Best and Roger Wilson being handed a first experience of captaining the side, with the crowning moment coming in 2006.

Seven years on from the moment they stood side by side with the European Cup in hand, McCall watched on as Humphreys' late drop goal against Ospreys in Swansea sealed the Celtic League for his side. Ulster, of course, have yet to win silverware since.

Things, however, turned sour and markedly so.

Less than two full seasons later, and with a section of the fanbase disgruntled, he was handing in his resignation with the side bottom of the league and having suffered home humiliation in Europe at the hands of Gloucester - incidentally the last time Ulster surrendered a four-try bonus at home in continental competition before McCall brought his Saracens side here in November.

Heartbroken by how things had transpired at his spiritual home, the same resilience he had shown in the 12 jersey would come to the fore as, with the help of an old friend, he rebuilt his career.

Along with Jeremy Davidson, his former team-mate at Ulster, London Irish and Ireland, McCall and family - his children Bryn and Jemma, born two years apart, were youngsters at the time - headed to France to form the coaching ticket at Castres.

Reputation restored in the Pyrénées, it was another old pal that brought him back to the United Kingdom.

Brendan Venter, who lined out in London Irish's midfield alongside McCall in the 90s, invited him to be his coach at Saracens and McCall jumped at the chance. When Venter - the South African who had attempted to parody the film 'Mike Bassett: England Manager' in a post-match television interview and once walked into a disciplinary hearing absent-mindedly enjoying a biscuit - stepped into the role of technical director, McCall ascended into the top job he still holds.

It's been a success story ever since…not that he'd ever tell you himself. The man nicknamed 'Smally' is one of the most understated personalities in the sport, his softly spoken demeanour certainly at odds with many of his contemporaries.

While obligatory media functions are fulfilled, further access is rarely granted.

Indeed, when a UK national ran an extensive piece last week, the interview was conducted with the request that it wasn't made all about him.

Still, there is little doubt that he is the crucial calm at the eye of the Saracens storm and has done it often by discarding conventional wisdom.

He has maintained the unusual tendency for the club to jet-off for mid-season breaks - Cape Town, Miami, Munich, Barcelona and Amsterdam have all been visited - while it was the legendary jockey of AP McCoy who was chosen as a motivational speaker ahead of the push for this season's Premiership and Champiosn Cup double.

Saracens may be far from everyone's cup of tea - accusations that their style is a turn-off have been redressed to a degree this season but persistent rumours of a salary-cap breach have brought comparisons to football teams who have spent their way to success - but there is no arguing with the results.

The Londoners won their first two Aviva Premiership titles, the first in 2011 and the latter 12 months ago, under McCall's stewardship and are favourites for another this season.

The European Cup, however, has proven elusive with a loss in the final against Toulon two years ago as close as they have came. They fell without firing a shot that day in the Millennium Stadium and McCall will be determined that is not the case again in Lyon this afternoon against Racing and Dan Carter.

Should McCall follow in the footsteps of fellow Ulsterman Harry Williams all those years ago, and Saracens become the first English side since Wasps in 2007 to rule Europe, it would be akin to Brendan Rodgers leading Chelsea to Champions League success.

Just don't expect the unassuming McCall to boast about the achievement.

Belfast Telegraph

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