Thursday 23 February 2017

McCall to arms

Ulsterman looking to reignite coaching career following ascension to Saracen's hot seat, starting tomorrow at Leinster

David Kelly

David Kelly

Mark McCall could build a platform for an exciting coaching future if he makes a go of it at Saracens.
Mark McCall could build a platform for an exciting coaching future if he makes a go of it at Saracens.

So which Irishman has the best coaching position in European club rugby?

You reckon Munster's chief, having guided them to Magners League summit and second place in their Heineken Cup qualification pool? Sadly, Tony McGahan may have cut his coaching teeth here before winning a league title but he's a Queenslander by birth, from just outside flood-afflicted Brisbane in Warwick.

What about Leinster's head guy? Regrettably, Joe Schmidt is a Kiwi and only pitched up on these shores in the summer before guiding Leinster to the top of their Heineken Cup group and third place in the Magners League table.

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin was part of a Triple Crown-winning back-room team but as a primus inter pares he is a belated work in progress, with his team, as ever, on the verge of either implosion or explosion.

And Connacht's Eric Elwood is only taking baby steps with the fallow fourth green field of Irish rugby.

So step forward Mark McCall. The 43-year-old Bangor native this week stepped into the hot seat at the second best club in the English Premiership following the return to South Africa of erstwhile head coach Brendan Venter.

It's a plum posting and now McCall has his mitts on it.

And while his side's Heineken Cup qualification hopes may have gone south after a hat-trick of opening losses in their qualification pool, McCall's side will still have their sights set on securing a berth in the Challenge Cup, European rugby's second tier, by gaining revenge for October's Wembley defeat at the RDS tomorrow.

It is unsure whether Saracens' enigmatic owner Edward Griffiths or the club's chairman, Nigel Wray, truly believe that a coach unheralded on British soil could be the man to step into the breach on a full-time basis from next summer.

When Venter initially announced in December that he would be returning to Cape Town for personal reasons, albeit retaining a link to the club as technical director, it was assumed that McCall would be handed the reins purely for expedient reasons until the end of the season.

South Africa's World Cup-winning coach Jake White, currently raising his hemline at employers on an almost daily basis, was cited as an obvious successor yet, ironically, some of the London club's Springbok contingent fled their home country precisely to escape White.

Now the talk this week around London is that the job may well be McCall's without any interference from possible candidates from outside the club; influential hooker Schalk Brits is enamoured with McCall and told this newspaper that the seamless transition clearly suggests a long-term view.

Great

"It's more of a team he works with," said Brits. "He was a great player and he knows the game. He's been doing our counter-attack for the last 18 months, now he's taking on a more senior role. We have great coaching structures here. He's a good coach already and I think he has the possibility of becoming a great coach."

That is some endorsement and one echoed by the departing Venter, while his chairman has also fully endorsed the promotion. "We are delighted to appoint Mark McCall," said Wray. "He has played a crucial role in our recent success and, with his experience at Ulster and Castres, is ideally equipped to maintain this progress."

This time last season, Saracens radically overhauled their style of play from a turgid, kick-based approach to a flamboyant, off-loading game which benefited significantly from McCall's input.

It has been a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of a colourful coaching career, one which had all but seemed burned out when he departed under-performing Ulster in a haze of controversy and rancour more than three seasons ago.

He arrived in Saracens via Castres, where he worked along with Jeremy Davidson under the influential Alain Gaillard; he has amassed a significant bunch of experience in Europe's top three leagues. He is the only Irish coach to lead three teams in three different domestic leagues (he had a short, abortive spell with Castres).

Once presumably touted as one of the "cadre" of Irish coaches so laughably intoned by IRFU chief executive Philip Browne when he was handing out a huge wedge to Eddie O'Sullivan before the World Cup in 2007, McCall has learned a lot since then without the IRFU money men picking up a penny of the tab.

Just a month after that World Cup, McCall was a goner following a disastrous home defeat to Gloucester in the Heineken Cup. It's a pity that nothing seemed to become him more as an Ulster coach than his leaving of the province.

A small but skillful inside centre, McCall, whose father Conn played cricket for Ireland, was capped 13 times for his country, making his debut against New Zealand in the near-miss at Dunedin in 1992 and winning his last cap against South Africa in 1998.

Curiously, he appeared on the winning team just once -- against Canada -- during that six-year spell which also included two defeats to the then powerful Italians. Even more curiously, he failed to score on any of his Ireland appearances.

He was a regular in the Ulster midfield throughout the 1990s, captaining them in the early stages of their European Cup-winning campaign of 1998/99 before injury forced his premature retirement before the side lifted the trophy at Lansdowne Road.

He then started his coaching career with Ulster club side Ballynahinch before assisting Harry Williams as Ulster coach, retaining that role under Allan Solomons. He also coached the Ireland U-21s and assisted Matt Williams with Ireland 'A' for two seasons before taking over as Ulster head coach in July 2004.

The undoubted highlight was the 2005-06 Celtic League success when Ulster averaged more than 20 points a game and also boasted the meanest defence; the youthful McCall's empathy with some of his former playing colleagues clearly infused his side with much of their exuberance.

Cliques

However, that positive would become a negative in later times as certain cliques developed and McCall became undermined by poor signings; the Heineken Cup exit in 2006-07 was particularly abysmal and signified the beginning of the end.

He still harbours a desire to return to this country in a coaching capacity, however, and his recent experiences have clearly matured him and armed him with the appropriate ammunition to become a big success.

Trouble is, England's gain could be Ireland's loss.

"McCall is an astute, hard-working, decent technical coach," according to Tyrone Howe, who would have a keen recollection of McCall's tenure, having played with and under him.

"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. 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."

Nabbing the signature of Charlie Hodgson this week could indicate that McCall's immediate future may well continue to reside in London, not Belfast. When -- or if -- he ever returns to these shores, he shouldn't have any difficulty finding a job.

Irish Independent

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