Belfast Telegraph

Mark McCall has gone on to be one of world's elite coaches, says Rory Best

Familiar: Rory Best played for Mark McCall with Ulster
Familiar: Rory Best played for Mark McCall with Ulster
Class act: Mark McCall has flourished at Saracens
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Such is the success enjoyed by Mark McCall since leaving these shores - four Premiership titles and two European Cups with Saracens, and another Champions Cup final against Leinster today - that his first medal as a head coach has become something of a footnote in a storied career.

Having played a huge role behind the scenes in his native province's European Cup win 20 years ago, and acted as an assistant for the oft-forgotten Celtic Cup triumph, he was just 38-years-old and in sole control when Ulster won the Celtic League in 2006, sealing the title on the final day with a late David Humphreys drop goal that bounced off both posts.

While McCall's ugly exit from what was then Ravenhill only a year and a half later is frequently used as a cautionary tale given the redemptive trajectory of the Bangor man's career since, Rory Best was never in any doubt about his coaching credentials, lamenting only that he wasn't given the support required when first making the jump from peer to boss.

Best is the only current Ulster player to have won that league title that day in Swansea and remembers McCall's Ulster side fondly.

"He was a great coach (then too)," said the Ireland skipper.

"Everyone now is doing three-four-five-phase plays, but he was one of the first - at least that I worked under - who brought that in. We potentially didn't have the best team in terms of individuals, but we were very organised.

"We played to our strengths and tactically we were a bit ahead of a lot of teams at that point.

"Mark has gone on to show how good a coach he is.

"Unfortunately for us, the whole set-up around him was quite inexperienced. From S&C to the coaches under Mark. Unfortunately, when the pressure came on, that's when you need the experience to guide the ship a little bit. I think Ulster Rugby didn't surround Mark with that.

"Right up to CEO, Mike Reid had come in from the amateur to professional (era) and we probably underestimated how well we had done to win the league. And when a few things went wrong the next year it all seemed to fall apart quite quickly.

"Ask a lot of the players who played under Mark, they were under no illusions how great a coach he was.

"Obviously, it's worked out well for him, it's worked out well for us because we've got Dan (McFarland).

"He's a good guy and a good coach, that season was a good year."

The somewhat cruel irony for Ulster, of course, is that while the coach they pushed hastily towards the exit is one of the most decorated of his era, the province have won nothing since that maiden league success now an unlucky 13 years ago.

That could still change this year, with Ulster facing a Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Glasgow on Friday evening. Best believes there is something comparable in the DNA of the province's last trophy-winning squad and the current crop.

"There are a lot of similarities," he reflected. "Especially if you look at our results at the start of the season. We were trying to combine a few things, Dan was only recently in and there was a bit of turnover of players.

"Sometimes it's not as perfect as you want it to be, but you just have to roll up your sleeves and try to find something.

"This team has found ways to get points so I think there are characteristics of that squad, not knowing when they're beaten."

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