Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Ulster's two of a kind are chasing trophies

Mark McCall with David Humphreys

In the closing days of a season in which Ulster have finished up empty-handed once more, two men from the province are to the fore in a bid for a domestic-European league-cup double.

Mark McCall and Phil Morrow are the pair in question – Saracens' Director of Rugby and Performance Director respectively and right now they will be hoping their work will bear fruit when their players line out against Toulon in the Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium this evening.

This is part one of their challenge; part two will come next Saturday when Sarries face Northampton Saints at Twickenham in the Aviva Premiership play-off final.

McCall is a proven winner. Having joined Saracens from Castres Olympique as a first team coach in 2009, he was appointed as Director of Rugby in January 2011 when Brendan Venter vacated the position. The season ended with McCall having led Sarries to their first-ever Premiership title.

Were he to bag the Heineken Cup and then add another Premiership a week hence, that would raise the north London club's standing to the most dizzy of heights in English club rugby, for that double has been done only twice before – by Leicester Tigers in 2001 and Wasps in 2004.

With McCall and Morrow being Ulstermen through and through, many on this side of the Irish Sea would be delighted to see the pair complete the first half of their two-part challenge this evening.

The pain of Ulster's controversial elimination at Saracens' hands having eased somewhat in the seven weeks since the sides met in Heineken Cup quarter-final at Ravenhill, now the hope is they can see off the holders. At this stage, few if any Ulster supporters would wish the duo anything other than the best of luck tonight and next Saturday, too.

His background ensures him of his kinsmen's affection. McCall was Ulster's captain when they won the Heineken Cup in 1999, though a neck injury meant he played no part in the triumph over Colomiers in the Lansdowne Road final. When that injury ultimately ended his playing career, the IRFU promptly found gainful employment for the Bangor man, installing him as coach of Ireland Under-21s and Ireland A.

At provincial level, he was Alan Solomons' assistant coach for two seasons before becoming Ulster's head coach in 2004, a position he held for three years.

And, just as had been true of his time as a player, his tenure as a coach yielded silverware.

In 2003, when he was an assistant, his province won the Celtic Cup. In 2006, by which stage he was in charge and had Allen Clarke as his erstwhile lieutenant, he masterminded Ulster's capture of the Magners League.

The fact that Ulster have won nothing since merely underlines the enormity of McCall's achievements.

Following a bad run of defeats, he resigned as Ulster in November 2007. But he learned much from that painful experience and proof of his reinvention as one of the most respected figures in northern hemisphere rugby came last week when he was named the Aviva Premiership's 2013-14 Director of Rugby, pipping shortlisted Richard Cockerill (Leicester Tigers) and Steve Diamond (Sale Sharks) to the coveted prize.

It is the second year in a row that he has won that award.

Phil Winstanley, rugby director at Premiership Rugby, said: "We are very fortunate to have some of the best coaches in the world but that ensured the judging panel had a tough job. All three on the shortlist were presented with their own different challenges and have led their clubs into next season's European Rugby Champions Cup.

"Mark has managed a superb season for Saracens, leading the charge at the top of Aviva Premiership Rugby and steering his side into a Heineken Cup final."

The respect and regard in which he is held by his players was reflected in the words of Saracens and England scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, who said: "He's got an unbelievable knowledge of the game. You can mention any match we've been involved in at any stage in the last three years and he'll know exactly what happened and why."

And Wigglesworth's club and country team-mate, centre Brad Barritt, endorsed McCall by adding: "With rugby you can often have too much information. The ability to select certain points is key and the method of delivery under Mark is impeccable. He is second to none in terms of the fine detail he puts in."

Then, lauding another of the DoR's attributes, Barritt added: "Mark has been unbelievable as director of rugby. One of the core traits at Saracens is humility – and he has that in spades."

Like McCall, Performance Director Morrow learned much of what he knows on this side of the pond, having previously held strength and conditioning and high performance posts at Ulster and Ireland levels.

With this being the stage when issues are decided, he believes that it is now the value of the work done in pre-season and throughout the campaign can be seen.

Morrow reflected: "When we started out we used to just flog players; professionalism was still in its infancy in the sport and, I suppose, we didn't know what we were doing as much as we do now.

"But now we monitor the players a lot more closely and we try to make it more specific for what they have to do during the games."

Between them McCall and Morrow already have delivered much as a double act. And tonight in Cardiff, part one of another double is up for grabs.

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