Friday 23 June 2017

On the Mark

Coursed from his first coaching job with Ulster despite leading them to their last title win, Bangor’s Mark McCall is quietly making a big noise in Saracens’ ongoing quest for sporting immortality

Mark McCall has his sights set on European glory with Saracens. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters
Mark McCall has his sights set on European glory with Saracens. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sometimes the faintest voices can roar the loudest. Mark McCall is comfortable embracing silence because he has experienced the havoc that too much noise can make.

His coaching cv roars achievements that grow year on year; today, he seeks to lead only the fourth team to back-to-back Champions Cup titles, a week before Saracens continue their chase of an unprecedented "double-double", when they try to tag on an English league triumph.

Truly, then, this son of Bangor would be utterly justified in striding atop the tallest of rooftops, acclaiming his accomplishments to all.

Instead, he will hang his head humbly low; and keep his voice lower still.

Never can a nickname bequeathed during his playing days - "Small" - have seemed so out of kilter with someone whose coaching and managerial reputation continues to grow at an enormous rate.

He will rarely speak of his most integral methods and motivation, content to let others speak about him.

Polite

Intimate interviews are not negotiable; a polite refusal is now an accepted response to any invitation to dance around words. This is a man of action.

When he does speak with the media, he is unfailingly courteous but often the ticking of a wall clock can muffle his well-chosen words.

But he rarely offers a careless whisper; in public, or in private. He doesn't need to.

His old boss at Saracens, and one-time three-quarters colleague, Brendan Venter, tells a story which seems to sum up the manner in which McCall can summon silence to construct such an impressive wall of wisdom.

Venter had invited a friend to observe a series of coaching meetings, supervised by McCall, who spoke at none of them.

After more than an hour of presentations from a variety of coaching staff, he was able to recall and relay the key information. Venter's friend turned to him and said, "Now that's leadership!"

Introspection allows one to hear much more than coaches who sometimes prefer hearing their own voices more than anyone else's. As much as it seems he is hard to hear, what McCall says is always worth hearing.

Experience has taught him to filter any unnecessary noise. The din has deafened him before and, arguably, altered him forever more.

For McCall is neither an overseas nor an overnight success.

"Small" was a nickname that defined his size but never his reputation; his brothers were keen sportsmen and bigger too but it was Mark who forged a representative career in rugby and cricket. Dad Conn played for Ireland several times and was president of their Union.

A sturdy midfielder who maximised his talents, his career was bookended by challenges upon which he thrived; a 1992 Dunedin debut against the All Blacks and the infamous 1998 Battle of Pretoria in South Africa.

Ireland were dire in the 1990s; however, Ulster were not. Sadly, as both player and province together approached the summit of their ambition, McCall's career jack-knifed.

As Ulster advanced upon Ireland's maiden European title in 1999, McCall suffered the serious neck injury that would suddenly terminate one career and unwittingly unfurl another.

One day he was a playing colleague, the next an assistant to coach Harry Williams; the post became permanent before he got top billing by himself in 2004, aged just 36.

He was initially successful, winning a Celtic League title in 2006 but when the side began to stumble, the attributes that seemingly aided him before were now a burden.

Perspective soon coloured his initial success. McCall never found it difficult to suddenly adjust from being merely a playing colleague to becoming a figure of authority.

But some of the players did.

The dressing-room soon disintegrated; so too, did the team and McCall resigned 18 months later after a harrowing run of results, his reign ending with invective from a disturbing minority raining down from the stands who once stood to acclaim him.

This was a different kind of noise and it hardened his inclination towards silent contemplation.

The opprobrium had followed him to his kids' mini-rugby mornings and even when his wife was collecting kids from school; so he would now go abroad, initially to Castres, and then Saracens, to pick up the threads of his coaching career.

Again, he began assisting, first to Jeremy Davidson in Castres, then to Venter with Saracens from 2009 before assuming the primary role during the 2010/'11 season.

Perhaps he needed the time away from a fomenting furnace back home to gain the experience and knowledge required to be a full-time coach; recent history tells us that the pathway of coaching that begins in one's fourth decade does not always run smoothly.

Substance

His journey has served him well. Initially, it seemed like an odd fit; Saracens were a club who had often placed style before substance; McCall's emphasis was to reverse that culture.

McCall, not immune from borrowing from elsewhere - he visited Bayern Munich, amongst many others - also leaned heavily on the unique provincial parochialism that he knew so well from home and which had elevated Munster and Leinster towards the European summits he and his club craved.

Home may have spurned him but he never spurned home.

"Eight years ago, when this project began," he said before the defending champions' defeat of Munster in the Aviva semi-final last month, "Munster, Leinster, Wasps, Leicester of old - they were the teams that you wanted to model your club on because of the consistency they had, the continuity in the people that they had.

"Saracens' history prior to that was just this turnover of people, staff and players alike, and it didn't work for the first period of professional rugby. I think there was a lot to learn from Munster and Leinster in that regard."

McCall and Saracens have now emulated them all; this month, they could compile a league and European double matched only by that great aforementioned Leicester outfit at the start of the century.

Achievements worthy of cacophonous celebration. Just don't expect Mark Conn McCall to shout about it.

Irish Independent

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