Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

McCall plotting Ulster downfall

Mark McCall of Saracens

Former Ulster captain and coach Mark McCall has warned his one-time colleagues that Saracens have never been in better shape for a Heineken Cup assault.

Now Director of Rugby at Saracens – Ulster's quarter-final opponents at Twickenham on Saturday evening (6.30pm) – McCall has a fully-fit star-studded squad at his disposal.

Leicester Tigers – currently second to Saracens in the race for the Aviva Premiership – and Harlequins, who are third, are in the mix, too, which means that for the first time since 2009 there are three English clubs in the last eight of the Heineken Cup.

The Premiership has not produced European champions since 2007 when London Wasps beat Leicester 25-9 in an all-English final at Twickenham.

And like Saracens, Leicester, who face Toulon in France on Sunday, and Quins, who host Munster, are in the unusual position of being almost completely free of injury concerns. The Rugby Players' Association estimates that at any one time up to a quarter of players are sidelined through injury.

So the fact that England's trio of representatives are free of any such problems this weekend has boosted hopes on the other side of the Irish Sea that this could be their year. And no-one has been beating that particular tub any harder than Bangor-born-and-bred McCall.

"It's great that we have a full deck to pick from for what is a hugely difficult game this weekend," he said.

"Ulster are a really good team – but we are in a good place at the moment."

He added: "It is brilliant to have three English teams in the quarter-finals and, I believe, three very good teams who all have a realistic possibility of progressing," he said.

Although McCall was his native province's captain in 1999 when they won the Heineken Cup, beating Colomiers in the Lansdowne Road final, he missed out on their greatest-ever triumph through a neck injury which ultimately finished his career.

David Humphreys deputised as skipper in his absence and, as fate would have it, the pair will be in opposite corners as opposing Directors of Rugby on Saturday night.

After winning the Heineken Cup in 1999, Ulster had to wait until 2011 before once more qualifying for the knock-out stages. But this is the third year in a row they have been in the last eight of Europe's premier club rugby tournament.

Ulster's progress since making that breakthrough two years ago has inspired McCall who believes Saracens now can emulate it.

Turning the clock back 12 months he recalled: "Last year it felt that we arrived at the quarter-final against Clermont more in hope than expectation and the game seemed to be done in 25 minutes. But we're a stronger group this year. Our ability to deal with setbacks is way better than it used to be."

Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths, meanwhile, poured cold water on any suggestion that McCall would be leaving the Premiership leaders to succeed Declan Kidney as Ireland head coach.

"It is completely understandable that when jobs like this come up that Mark's name is mentioned because he is one of the most successful coaches in Europe," he said. "However, just like the rest of our coaching staff, Mark recently signed a two-year extension and he remains totally committed to what we are doing at the club.

"We have not had any contact from the Irish RFU."

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