Former Ulster coach McCall in way of semi-final dreams
Former Ulster captain and coach, Mark McCall, admitted that it is going to feel strange when he gets round to trying to plot the downfall of old pals and former comrades in arms.
With Saracens, where he is Director of Rugby, hosting Ulster in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, he said: “It will be good to see so many old friends again.
“Obviously I still keep in touch with the Ulster management boys at Ravenhill so it will be good to have some banter in the build-up to the quarter-finals.
“But it will feel a bit strange.”
By finishing fourth of the 24 clubs in the pool stage of the Heineken Cup, Saracens condemned his native province to fifth place and an early-April trip to England.
Last night, after the quarter-final pairings had been sorted out, McCall, who left his job as Ulster coach in November 2007, was hugely complimentary to his native province.
“They are having a phenomenal season. Along with Clermont, they have been the form team in Europe this season,” he said.
Highlighting Ulster’s win on Saturday over Castres Olympique at Stade Pierre Antoine — where, in tandem with Jeremy Davidson he coached between leaving Ulster and joining Saracens — McCall said: “That was a great result, particularly when you consider the six or seven key players — massive players — they were without.
“But they’ve got this strength in depth which they’ve never had before, so they can cope with injuries. And as we understand it, almost all of those players will be back by the time they come to play us.”
His assessment of the forthcoming match against last season’s beaten finalists was: “It’s a really hard tie for us. It’s going to be difficult. I’m just so grateful that we got a home draw.”
‘Home’ is not strictly true, however. As with Ulster’s 2011 quarter-final against Northampton which was played Milton Keynes since Franklin’s Gardens was too small to host a knock-out stage fixture, Saracens are having to look beyond Allianz Park, their headquarters in Hendon, north-west London
“We’re actually going to be playing a game there this Saturday in the LV Cup but I’d say it’s very unlikely that the quarter-final against Ulster will take place at Allianz Park,” McCall revealed.
“It’s a 10,000-seater stadium at the moment and that’s not big enough.
“We’ll be looking at the various options. It has been a very strange season; we’ve been all over the place. People think of Vicarage Road as being our home but actually we’ve only played four or five games there this season.
“The powers that be are assessing a few options and an announcement will be made in due course.”
Meanwhile Ulster coach Mark Anscombe admitted that the pairing with Saracens had come as no surprise.
“We’ve been doing all of the various permutations since about round three and the one common thing at the end of each round has been that it has looked like we’d be playing Saracens,” he said.
“Now it has turned out that way. We didn’t get the home draw, but that’s the way it is. We didn’t quite do enough in Castres and we had a poor performance against Northampton. That has cost us.
“But there wasn’t going to be an easy match. All eight teams still in the competition are quality so you’re going to have to be on top of your game to beat any one of them.
“Travelling does not concern me unduly. We’ve had a good track record on the road, so we can be confident of that.
“We lost a Rabo game to Munster, and we lost at home to Northampton in the Heineken, but we have not been beaten outside Ireland this year.
“We’ve been to France, we’ve been to England, we’ve been to Wales, we’ve been to Italy and we’ve been to Scotland and we haven’t been beaten,” he pointed out.
“But the quarter-final is two and-a-half months away and a hell of a lot of water is going to go under the bridge between now and then. Hopefully we get our players back and don’t lose too many others.
“Then, in two months time, we can start looking with confidence at going to London to play them somewhere, wherever it is.
“If we win, we’re back in Ireland for the semi-final and that’s another incentive to progress to that stage,” the Kiwi added.