Belfast Telegraph

Saracens boss Mark McCall is putting his stamp on the European Rugby Champions Cup

By Michael Sadlier

Legend has it that he actually got into coaching accidentally, but the anecdote masks the reality that this was the road which Mark McCall had already wanted to travel once his playing days were done.

It was just about finding a way in and then staying put. He grabbed his chance with both hands and has shown remarkable resilience when it comes to survival in one of the toughest jobs in the trade, learning from his ultimately difficult experience at Ulster to reinvent himself at Saracens as one of the game's most sought after and respected coaches.

While this is a down weekend for Ulster's squad, thanks to their Champions Cup exit at the pool stages, it will be another one of massive intensity for the 47-year-old Bangor native, who leads Saracens into their third European semi-final in as many years.

And getting there this season has been achieved the hard way - as a pool runner-up to Clermont - though the challenge is going to steepen even further on Saturday when McCall's squad meet the French club again in Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne.

There is history between the sides as they smashed the French club 46-6 at the same stage last season at Twickenham and lost 22-3 to them in 2012's quarter-final at Sarries' former Vicarage Road ground.

The fact that Saracens are there at all is testament to something which deep thinker McCall has helped bring to the club since he was brought on board by former London Irish team-mate Brendan Venter in 2009 as first team coach.

The English Premiership club have been transformed into a side with a plan, whether that is to attack or, more likely, to suffocate the opposition with their ruthless efficiency.

Winning trophies has proved elusive - one Premiership title has been lifted, in 2011 - but Saracens have, nevertheless, made their mark both in Europe and domestically while the club's desire to keep their director of rugby has secured his future at Allianz Park until June 2017.

For all that, though, few had really expected anything other than three French teams making it through to this weekend's Champions Cup semi-finals but it has never been entirely wise to dismiss Sarries while under McCall's watch.

The understated Ulsterman doesn't provide reams of willing soundbites, in fact he prefers not to be in the limelight, but instead radiates a determination which has helped shape the club he has moulded into a formidable force.

You can rest assured that the former European Cup winner with Ulster - who as non-playing captain jointly lifted the trophy back in 1999 with the now Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys whose side is in the Challenge Cup semis - is doggedly focused on doing so again with Saracens.

There is an interesting contrast between the two former team-mates.

They played together at London Irish as well and while Humphreys became a star player at Ulster and Ireland, McCall never had that profile and after his departure as Ulster coach in 2007 had to reinvent himself in France before returning to have another shot at a big job.

As for Humphreys, he seamlessly slotted in to be Ulster's director of rugby before shocking most observers by pitching up in the West Country last summer.

The fact that Saturday's game is in France does not intimidate Saracens and McCall has been playing strongly on the fact that the clash is away from Clermont's fortress at Stade Marcel-Michelin.

"We're still going to France, but it's not quite the same as going to their own ground," McCall said.

"Their (Clermont's) performance against Northampton (in the quarter-finals) was as good as anything that has been played by a club side this season, so we have got to try to find a way to put them under some pressure and put them in some difficult positions," he added.

And while McCall makes it clear that his squad can win again in France it shouldn't be forgotten that he has first-hand knowledge of the game over there after his stint at Castres with Jeremy Davidson.

Though he suddenly departed Ulster in 2007 - after taking on the job in 2004 - McCall is still the last person to have overseen the capture of a trophy through the province's 2006 Celtic League triumph.

And he also put an end to Ulster's interest in last season's knockout stages on that memorable day last April at the then Ravenhill.

Of even greater satisfaction, though, would be a European triumph and a shot at taking down Toulon after they turned the Allianz Park side over in last May's final and put them out at the semi-final stage the year before.

Whatever happens, nothing will come easy which is just as McCall likes it.

Even so, he knows it is time more silverware was handled.

Belfast Telegraph


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