Tyrone Howe: Highs and lows of Ravenhill job honed McCall
Sporting careers are normally marked by highs and lows. Indeed, without the lows it is difficult to fully appreciate success when it comes your way. In a multitude of ways, life mirrors that same dynamic within the sporting world.
Maybe the biggest and most important parallel is that it is not the particular hurdle or obstacle that you face, but how you deal with it and overcome it that counts. Interestingly, exactly the same can be said for a sports coach. In fact, maybe the challenge is that bit more difficult to deal with — a coach is dependent on the individual or group of individuals who take the competitive arena.
As a coach, you lose direct control over the outcome. You can nurture the process during the week, but when the whistle blows, you are left with the hope and belief that you have prepared your team well enough that success is a real possibility.
Mark McCall’s career as a player and coach has contained its fair share of highs and lows. Ulster coach, Harry Williams, appointed McCall captain of his Ulster XV, only for the player to suffer a neck injury that would force his premature retirement from the game.
The main consequence was that he had to endure the role of spectator as Ulster played their way to European Cup glory in 1999. As he lifted the trophy with new captain, David Humphreys, one can only imagine the bitter sweet emotions.
McCall’s coaching career was also honed within Ulster. As second in command to the strong-minded, strong-willed and inspirational South African, Alan Solomons, Ulster never quite made the breakthrough at European level.
What Solomons did achieve, however, was to return Ravenhill to its former reputation as an indomitable fortress, a fearsome cauldron of smouldering intensity. Lifting the now extinct Celtic Cup was a fair achievement and at least got some silverware back to Ulster HQ.
McCall, then, inherited the role of Head Coach, when Solomons moved to Northampton, a move that in itself was shortlived. Initial success followed with the lifting of the Celtic League in 2005-2006, but then the wheels rapidly came off.
Eighteen months later and McCall had resigned with Ulster in disarray.
McCall is an astute, hard-working, decent technical coach, but whatever the rights and wrongs of his tenure, there was a certain inexperience of how to handle situations that played a role in McCall’s demise.
It also calls into question whether certain people or personality types are better suited to being right hand men rather than “top dog”.
The business world goes to great lengths to personality-profile individuals, either in initial recruitment or trying to identify potential high-flyers. The concept of leadership is a whole topic on its own, but there can be no doubt that leadership sits more comfortably on the shoulders of some rather than others.
Therefore, there is a certain symmetry and no lack of irony in the announcement last week that Saracen’s Director of Rugby, Brendan Venter, is leaving his post to return to his native South Africa. Once again, Mark McCall is stepping back into the limelight as Sarries supremo, having operated as a very good right hand man for the unyielding South African.
Saracens will miss the presence of Venter. He is unashamedly opinionated, loyal and forthright. His ideals and beliefs are based on a high end moral code. He has no fear of earthly authority and at times, this has made life extremely difficult for referees and rugby’s committee men. His persona is a blend of ethics, competitive spirit and a killer instinct.
On the pitch Venter verged on the psychopathic.
In short, these are big shoes to fill, but to be fair to McCall, he has worked his way into this position. He is older, wiser, and far more experienced and hopefully all these factors will guide him successfully through the next challenge of his coaching career.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to observe how Mark McCall handles the enhanced responsibility. It is one thing being the assistant, but to then taking up the reins. It is not the obstacle, but the way you deal with it and the lessons you learn from this process. Indeed, often the best lessons are gleaned from the toughest experiences.
For McCall, his time with Ulster was as tough as it gets and this might just prove to be invaluable to Ulster’s former coach when he takes up his new position on January 9.