Belfast Telegraph

Bangor man McCall would shine on Test stage, insists Barritt


By Jonathan Bradley

Leading his side into this afternoon's Champions Cup semi-final with Munster at the Aviva Stadium (3.15pm kick-off), Mark McCall will certainly be on familiar ground.

The Bangor man won six of his 13 Ireland caps at Lansdowne Road, and was the Ulster captain when the side famously secured the European Cup there in 1999, although he did not play in the final thanks to injury.

Another win in Dublin today, though, and the mastermind behind Saracens' recent trophy-laden spell will once again enhance his case to be returning to his old stomping ground on a much more regular basis in the not too distant future.

With Joe Schmidt having extended his tenure as the national coach until after the 2019 World Cup, he is unlikely to commit to another tour of duty after the tournament in Japan, and McCall is already the native coach in possession of the most compelling CV.

After leaving his role at Ulster - McCall is still the last man to bring silverware to Kingspan Stadium having been head coach for the 2006 Celtic League win - he pitched up at Saracens, via Castres, in 2009 and eventually assumed the top role from Brendan Ventner.

With the softly-spoken former centre at the forefront, there has been unparalleled success since, with back-to-back Aviva Premiership titles and last season's Champions Cup currently residing in a trophy cabinet just outside Barnet.

With the Allianz Park outfit favourites to retain both titles next month, the already building clamour to see McCall in the Test arena, whether it be as a successor to Schmidt or even Eddie Jones at England, could grow to a crescendo.

His captain, Brad Barritt, thinks he'd make the transition with ease.

"Mark is the rock and he is at the core of everything good about Saracens," said the man who will be looked to as a defensive linchpin for Saracens today.

"The best thing about Mark is that he has an unbelievable rugby brain that is widely admired across the rugby world.

"Mark is one of the best coaches in world rugby at the moment. I'm sure he would be an unbelievable international coach."

The man himself, however, is not thinking beyond this afternoon.

A veteran of big clashes against Munster thanks to his years as part of the inter-provincial rivalry, McCall certainly knows just what to expect on days like these, but he believes his players do too, even if there isn't a sole survivor in his 23 from when the teams met at this stage in 2008.

"I think the players do know what's coming and what they are walking into," said the 49-year-old.

"I think they are looking forward to it to be honest.

"It is going to be difficult at times and there are going to be times and we know there will be times in the match when we are under pressure and they've got all the momentum and we have got to show our experience in those moments, we've got to be resilient.

"We have got to understand we are not playing against super humans just because the crowd are noisy, we are just playing against a team and we've got to wrestle the initiative back.

"But then when we get down there we have got to capitalise on any momentum we get."

While Munster have always been more than their blood and thunder reputation, the same can be said of Saracens.

Having once been considered kick and chase merchants, some of that reputation lingers even if McCall has Saracens playing a brand of rugby rarely seen outside the upper echelons of Super Rugby.

But with Rassie Erasmus' arrival in Limerick last summer, coupled with Jacques Nienaber coming in as defence coach, McCall is wary that Munster are just the team to shut them down.

"As a team they are an unbelievably well organised side, the turnaround from last year to this year has been absolutely incredible," he commented.

"But not only are they hugely well organised, they work incredibly hard and they have got the best defensive record in the PRO12 and the Champions Cup.

"They are hard to break down and one of the reasons their defensive record is so good is they work hard, they scramble like no team that we have watched all season.

"They have only lost four games out of their 27 this season which is pretty good and it is because of that resilience.

"They are in the fight and they scrap for everything. It is going to be like that and then some on Saturday because of the crowd."

If there's one man who can work out how to silence them, however, then it's certainly Ulster's most successful prodigal son.

Belfast Telegraph


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