Sunday 17 December 2017

McCall demands even better as relentless Saracens switch focus to 'double double'

'“We owe it to ourselves, not to anyone else, to give it everything we’ve got,” said McCall, who dismissed any talk of dynasties or legacy. All that is for others to confer on them.' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
'“We owe it to ourselves, not to anyone else, to give it everything we’ve got,” said McCall, who dismissed any talk of dynasties or legacy. All that is for others to confer on them.' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Mick Cleary

Saracens, a tale of two playlists: from the strategic game-plan put together by director of rugby Mark McCall two years ago following a dispiriting European Cup semi-final defeat to the music mix compiled by prop Richard Barrington belting out at full blast in the Murrayfield dressing-room accompanied by ad-hoc dancing from Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell in celebration of back-to-back Champions Cup titles.

The seeds of the success are not to be found on any terrain of sporting triumph but deep in the bowels of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne.

It was there in April 2015 that McCall held court, insisting that the team who had just perished at the hands of Clermont Auvergne would rise. It was a stirring post-match appraisal.

If there were any doubters - and there were plenty - there are none now. Saracens have not lost a game of knockout rugby since, either in Europe or domestically.

They are undefeated in the Champions Cup, Saturday's landmark 28-17 victory over Clermont Auvergne setting a record of 18 consecutive matches without defeat.

Their only relative fall from grace was a scrambled draw at Scarlets in Llanelli this season.

And the late, late manner in which that was achieved showed that they are a team with a sense of fight at their core, a side of conviction, one for all seasons, and above all, on the cusp of greatness. The 'double double' is still very much on.

"We owe it to ourselves, not to anyone else, to give it everything we've got," said McCall, who dismissed any talk of dynasties or legacy. All that is for others to confer on them.

"Genuinely, we don't talk about such things. We only talk about how to get better.

"When we lost to Clermont in St Etienne it was a really raw time for us as a club. We had lost two finals the year before (2014) and we were on the verge of being known as the sort of team that can't deliver on the big stage.

"We went to Franklin's Gardens (a few weeks later) in the Premiership and won a semi-final. It was a big moment of change. We haven't lost a knockout game since, which is an incredible record.

"What is pleasing is that today we showed everybody how much we have evolved."

For the era-affirming 'double double' to happen, they must first beat in-form Exeter at Sandy Park in the Aviva Premiership semi-final.

Much has been said about the esprit de corps that is the essence of the club, from bottle washer to chairman Nigel Wray, that camaraderie that binds them together as equals.

Real as that brotherhood might be, there is a danger of placing too much emphasis on the power of the intangible and overlooking the skill and intelligence and rugby ingenuity that goes into the mix. And judgement, too,

McCall's supposedly contentious call to rest nine players against Wasps in the final regular-season league game now looks exactly what it was: the measured decision of a managerial maestro.

Saracens play good rugby, very good rugby. Everything else - the bonding, the togetherness - takes them to another level.

On Saturday, for the opening quarter and last 10 minutes in particular, they played as well as they have ever played, the Men in Black emulating that other lot at the other end of the world who also wear black.

Scarily for all adversaries, as McCall put it, "there is no reason we can't get better".

And to think that Saracens were once pilloried as being monochrome and one-dimensional.

These days they are multi-layered, with Farrell seeking space and probing for holes from the very first minute, when Chris Ashton almost scored.

Ashton was not to be denied, however, the Toulon-bound wing latching on to an exquisite kick-through from Alex Goode in the 13th minute to claim a record 37th try in Europe.

It would have taken something to eclipse the mighty Billy Vunipola for the man of the match award but Goode nearly did so, and you wonder again why he has never been deemed worthy of more England caps.

He has vision and he has guile, teeing up the position with an angled cut-back run for George Kruis' try in the 21st minute and then applying the coup de grace with the title-clinching try seven minutes from time.

Saracens themselves never looked panicked but their fans might have had a few wobbles as Clermont closed to 18-17 by the hour with tries by Remi Lamerat and a stunner from Nick Abendanon.

Saracens, though, know themselves. They turned outwards, not inwards, trusted in the lessons from that day in St Etienne when they pledged to reach out and conquer new horizons.

And they have. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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