Friday 18 August 2017

Gaining ground on foreign fields

When Mark McCall returns to work in Ireland, he will be a valuable asset, writes Brendan Fanning

We're not sure what the optimum age for coaches is, but 42 seems young enough. So Mark McCall has plenty of road still to travel. What we think is unusual for a man of his age is that he should have covered so much ground already.

Indeed he is unique among Irish coaches in having experience of the top three domestic leagues in Europe (his chronology was Magners, Top 14 and Premiership) as well as the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cups. He's only revving up.

From the IRFU's perspective, the beauty of this is that the last three seasons have come at someone else's expense. And so will the next few. And then? Well, he's conscious of having dragged the kids from Bangor to Castres to leafy St Alban's -- a 20-minute train ride from London but far enough away to be another world -- and at some point in the not-too-distant future it will be back home.

"None of it happened by design," he says of his route to Saracens last summer. "This particular wee ride has been a lot of fun over here. It's gone well and they're an extremely good bunch -- a very organised and ambitious club. A good bunch of people. It's a good place to be.

"Over the last few years, I've had the benefit of rubbing shoulders with people with lots of different ideas -- the Alan Solomons' way or Alain Gaillard's way, or Brendan Venter's way? They've all got something you can learn from and from an organisational point of view you see how those three clubs operate totally differently.

"I've learned from all those experiences. You truck on hopefully and when things arise you find you've dealt with them before or something similar and you handle them better, but you've also got to deal in the here and now and not dwell on the past. We've a job to do here."

For McCall, the here and now is Franklin's Gardens in the Guinness Premiership semi-final this afternoon. Remarkably, it will be the fifth time the clubs have met this season, with Sarries winning both league games and Saints coming out top in the LV Cup clashes. What's more notable however is the way, over that time, the London club have morphed from risk-averse percentage players who kicked first and asked questions later, to attack-charged athletes who play with ball in hand. The rugby they're playing now is brilliant to watch. So what the hell happened?

"In fact, it's quite straightforward," McCall says. "When Brendan (Venter) arrived in, there was a new coaching team and he asked people like Richard Hill, who was still involved, what Saracens stood for? And he couldn't get an answer. Saracens had been a club which from time to time won matches and played quite nice rugby and never really achieved anything. There was never any consistency or anything like that about what they did. So in fairness to Brendan and the new management team we set about trying to change that. He realised that if we were going to build something which was sustainable over a period of time, which is the aim, and not be a flash in the pan, then we had to build some roots.

"Saracens had always played some nice rugby but if you look at their try-scoring stats from last year, they scored 38 tries in the Premiership and in the previous year 58. There was nothing good about their core values. And we set about righting those things. The analogy I use is that the players almost had their toys locked in the cupboard for a while and learned how to work hard and have some discipline and some honesty and to get this work ethic ensconced in everybody.

"That took a period of time. And luckily, while that was happening, we were winning some rugby matches and doing some decent things as well. Then when the management said: 'Okay they've actually got this now,' the toys came out and they've enjoyed it even more."

Before Christmas, when they were boring everybody to death, they were also extremely hard to beat. Only twice in 17 games in that period did they come second. It was, if you recall, one of the worst mini-eras of rugby when a combination of laws and refereeing trends made attacking with ball in hand a dangerous business. Even so, Saracens were so cautious they were an insurer's dream.

In fact, we've seen the best of them over the last couple of weeks in their priceless away wins over Saints, who were unbeaten at home, and Leicester, where Saracens hadn't won in 32 attempts.

"Against Northampton, we played almost all-singing, all-dancing stuff and then the week after that against Leicester it wasn't like that at all," he says. "It was a 'roll your sleeves up' type of performance. The good thing from our point of view is that you get as much pleasure out of the second one as the first because we had to defend for our lives.

"We had to chase well and we had to front up at set-piece time which we hadn't done from time to time in crucial matches this season. The fact that our scrum and lineout went well was as pleasing as some of the tries we scored in the match against Northampton. It's up to us to ensure that those core things remain as they are. And I think the players know that's the key -- never mind for this weekend, but if we're going to keep this group together for a period of time.

"The other thing Saracens are known for is changing their coaching staff and changing their playing group wholesale year on year. That's not what we want to do. Obviously there was some upheaval at the end of last year but the group that we want to keep together for next season, everybody is back bar two people for the year after. And all the coaches are back as well. We wanted to get some stability."

Given the size of the coaching group, that's an achievement. McCall is listed as team coach, with Venter as director of rugby, and unusually for him he doesn't have specific responsibility for running the backs. Is there not a battle to find some personal space?

"It's a funny thing we've got going here: when I first arrived and Brendan spoke to me and told me who was going to be working for us, I was thinking there wouldn't be any work for anybody. We've got Paul Gustard and Alex Sanderson looking after the forwards; we've got Brendan; we've got me; we've got Andy Farrell. And you know what? It has worked. There's good chemistry between the coaches and maybe in other situations that number wouldn't work but it seems to work for us very well.

Andy's in his first year and he's going to be a brilliant coach because he's that kind of person. He's an achiever. And he enjoys having people to lean on as well.

"I have an involvement with the backs but I also have an involvement with Brendan on the decision-making side. When Brendan went home a few times during the season, I was left in charge. It's funny but with five of us you'd think it's top-heavy but at the moment it's working well.

"For me, it's been great. I've had good years and bad years all the way through. You know my first year at Castres was really enjoyable and we came fifth (in the Top 14) and then we had a tough year -- though I wasn't at the top end of that (organisation). And at Ulster there were good times and bad times, but it's been very enjoyable here. I enjoy the Premiership. And no matter what happens on Sunday, I think it's been a successful season already."

Certainly for Mark McCall it has. Given the closeness of his relationship with Venter however, since their playing days together in London Irish, changing the Saracens way will involve winning something soon. By the time he comes back to Ireland, he won't struggle for work.

Northampton v Saracens,

Sky Sports 2, 1.0

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