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What lies in store for Mark McCall today?

By Michael Sadlier

From savouring European Rugby Cup victory with Ulster in 1999 to walking away from the province’s head coaching job eight years later, Mark McCall’s career has known dizzying highs and subterranean lows. Today Saracens’ Bangor-born director of rugby stands 160 minutes away from a tantalising Heineken Cup-Premiership double.

As he looks around Cardiff's Millennium Stadium ahead of this evening's Heineken Cup final against Toulon, Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall might allow himself the briefest of wry smiles at how things have worked out.

After all, the former Ireland and Ulster player has now survived 10 years in the coaching game and is on the cusp of potentially achieving another career high by lifting the European club game's premier trophy again to sit very neatly alongside the day he held the cup aloft with David Humphreys – McCall was then non-playing captain due to a career-ending neck injury – after the Ulster squad so memorably triumphed way back in January 1999.

But the 46-year-old Bangor man will hardly expend much effort reflecting on all that has gone before as he primarily lives for the here and now. Yet the story of how the former player has fared since taking up coaching is a tale of how early success at Ulster – he was in charge when the province clinched the Celtic League in 2006, the last time they got their hands on silverware – turned to meltdown and exile before an unlikely looking resurrection came his way through involvement with north London club Saracens.

He still looks younger than his years, as well as being notably softly-spoken, but McCall is one shrewd operator. Saracens players have spoken in genuine awe of how the law graduate from Queen's University possesses a forensic knowledge of the game and the way his understated direction has given essential propulsion to the club which is now one of the driving forces in both domestic and European rugby.

He is much-travelled and his coaching stints in Belfast, the south of France and London have all helped mould McCall's philosophy and transform him from a figure who seemed crushed by his time at Ulster into one of the game's most respected figures.

To understand how he has come so far requires us to go back to where this coaching lark pretty much began. It is just short of 10 years ago when McCall was enjoying some downtime with his two young children in the back garden of his then Belfast home when his mobile phone went off and he instinctively answered it.

On the other end was a journalist seeking an interview with the newly appointed Ulster coach and McCall was aghast at having to handle the request what with the season well-finished and while he was enjoying the company of his son and daughter.

He still granted the interview, though, and joked that he was probably going to have get used to being under such heightened scrutiny now that he was a head coach and firmly in the line of fire.

It was a mere vignette, but, as things turned out, the pressure of being in the line of fire as a speedily promoted young coach simply became intolerable.

By November 2007 all the early promise – the Celtic League win of 2006 in his second season – had long been obliterated and he could take no more. He resigned and, in walking away from a poisonous atmosphere at Ravenhill, few thought he would ever feature in the game again.

That was the darkest time, but McCall bounced back. He doesn't talk about his time at Ulster, but he absorbed some valuable lessons and rejuvenated himself as an assistant coach over the next two years at Castres, alongside former Ulster and London Irish team-mate Jeremy Davidson, before Saracens, in the shape of another London Irish team-mate, Brendan Venter, threw him the lifeline he needed to realise his true talent.

And how he has thrived at the progressive London club, which has allowed him bring his accumulated coaching nous – he has now worked in three domestic leagues – and particular eye for detail into an environment where coaching delegation rather than heaping pressure onto one individual has brought the very best out of McCall.

His reputation shows no sign of losing momentum anytime soon, though more silverware is required, and Saracens have even granted him a contract extension until summer 2017 while he has already been named this season's Premiership coach of the year after a mighty regulation league campaign and push towards tonight's European final.

As always, though, he keeps his profile low-key. It was the same for last month's European quarter-final at Ravenhill, when he returned to triumph at a radically different looking ground than the one he left back in 2007.

If the result brought him personal satisfaction, he wasn't for airing it, though there might have been some private banter with Humphreys and Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell, who are still close friends and McCall has certainly not lost touch with his roots.

McCall was born in November 29, 1967 and he excelled at cricket and rugby with the latter seeing him prominent in the Schools' Cup success enjoyed by Bangor Grammar in the 1980s.

Playing for Ulster was a natural progression and this was achieved before he won the first of his 13 Ireland caps on the tour to New Zealand in 1992.

McCall was a committed inside centre with a courageously high defensive workrate and, always a deep thinker about the game, the germination of an idea that he might coach after playing came about at London Irish, the club he joined to sample the professional game in the late 1990s.

Along with Humphreys, McCall hooked up with the exiles club and played alongside Conor O'Shea and Venter – all four, interestingly enough, have ended up as directors of rugby – with his exposure to the latter's forceful personality proving a crucial contact in ultimately bringing him on board at Saracens.

He returned to Ravenhill at the end of the decade and, when injury forced his retirement, acquired his first taste of coaching at club level and was rapidly earmarked for bigger things after being brought on board as assistant coach at Ulster by Alan Solomons.

When Solomons left for Northampton Saints in 2004, McCall got the top job and in his second season Ulster clinched the Celtic League. It was a high point, but from there, things began to go wrong.

Though lauded for bringing young players through to the senior squad – Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris being given their debuts – McCall's lack of experience and difficulties in trying to coach players he had actually played alongside were all cited as reasons why he opted to fall on his sword in November 2007.

It was a dark time and he sought sanctuary and, more crucially, employment, in the south of France with Castres and the family departed Belfast for a new life in an entirely different culture.

In summer 2009 came his life-changing break as Venter approached him to join Saracens and, with the Castres role coming to an end, the family were on the move again.

At Saracens, a club determined to atone for years of underachievement, McCall found a welcoming atmosphere and environment which mirrored his own outlook and hunger to succeed.

He is now director of rugby and has already steered them to one Premiership title and, this season, towards realising the tantalising possibility of a Heineken Cup and Premiership double.

As ever, there has been speculation that he might ultimately return home and even try his luck at the Ireland job. Maybe, but you won't find him entertaining such notions, or picking up his phone to stray calls.

This coach has lived and learned his trade and he has done it the hard way.

A life so far...

  • Born: November 29, 1967, Bangor, Co Down
  • Education: Bangor GS, Queen's University
  • Playing career: Ulster and London Irish. Won 13 Ireland caps (1992-1998)
  • Coaching career: Ulster head coach (2004-2007), Castres assistant coach (2007-2009), Saracens (2009-present, becoming director of rugby in 2010)
  • He said: "We've had five years of building to this point. It hasn't all gone smoothly. There's been some big setbacks, as well as some triumphs."
  • They said: "He's got unbelievable knowledge. You can mention any match we've [Saracens] been in over the last three years and he'll know exactly what happened and why." (Saracens player Richard Wigglesworth)

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