McCall reflects on complicated journey as he becomes most successful Irish coach
Saracens were at their most vulnerable when they demonstrated their greatest strength; resilience is the great hallmark of champions.
Before half-time, three of their players had trudged from the field, two never to return, one binned; in their absence, Leinster seemed to seize a stranglehold on this game with a murderous scrum against the momentarily enfeebled.
“We stood under our posts,” said hooker Jamie George, “and Owen Farrell spoke to us. He basically gave us the choice: are we going to go for this or are we just going to accept it? And with Owen, it never seems like a choice.”
Now they know the way. There was a time they didn’t.
Their coach, the softly-spoken Mark McCall, a son of Bangor, has, more than anyone, enabled his squad with the mental skills to navigate the journey. Brain and brawn.
“It has just come from the experience they have built up this last six years,” he said, after surpassing Declan Kidney as the most successful Irish coach in European club rugby.
“In 2014 when we played Toulon and went down 10-0, there is no way we would have won that game.
“We just weren’t ready at that point, emotionally, to understand what was required and for our leaders to control. We were today.”
As usual, and as his vanquished counterpart Leo Cullen did a year before him, all personal praise is deferred unto others.
“Do I have doubt? Of course,” says McCall, whose side had been comprehensively spanked by Leinster last term. “Seasons are different and complicated. Early in the season, Exeter away we were dreadful, Sale.
“But you always need those things along the way to re-focus you. Our senior players are so key to everything that we do now.
“There has been a real pass over of responsibility and leadership from the coaches to them.
“They are so clear on what is needed and required, how they want the week to feel.
“You’d love to be in the dressing-room at half-time to hear what the players are talking about, not the coaches.
“Thankfully, we generally agree with what they are saying, but they are leading it, feeling it.
“We don’t wait for half-time to deliver those messages because they are being delivered on the field.
“Today we needed to have a really intense physical performance but we also needed to be clever.
“We married those two things really well today.”
McCall’s is a rampant humility which might threaten to render him redundant.
“It kind of feel that way at times,” he smiled.
The pride in what he and his team do is not so much in producing what they can but in limiting what others do; Leinster, often so vibrant and vivid, were flat and flaccid.
“I enjoyed the fact that we put them under so much pressure and we should have scored a few more tries,” McCall said.
“I enjoy the fact that we got a team like Leinster, not quite on the ropes but in some strife, and it takes something special to achieve that.”
They achieve it, some might cavil, ingloriously, with a brutish, beastly fashion, bolstered by a player, Billy Vunipola, wonderfully talented, but one demonised by his personal beliefs.
The club’s culture embraces him, nonetheless.
“The satisfaction that you get, genuinely, is when you see how happy everyone is,” said McCall.
“It’s not just about the players, it’s about the staff as well. We’ve got the same S&C staff here together for the last nine years.
“They give a sh*t about the club and they care about their players, and they will go to an A League game in Bristol on Monday night not because they have to go but because they want to see the players they look after.
“You look for the next crisis or the next problem. There is always something.
“Billy is still young so of course he can still improve.
“It would be terrible for me to say that he is the finished product but he is pretty good. He has played some very big games for us.
“It’s obviously been a complicated five or six weeks, I guess, for him and for the squad as well. What we needed from him was to do his talking on the field not off the field.
“He has been really good and his team-mates have supported him really well.
“And it was like that when Maro (Itoje) got binned. It certainly freed us up.
“For some reason we kind of felt that we had nothing to lose. Perhaps we’re good with our backs against the wall.”
Nobody may like them but, as champions, they don’t care what others think of them.
What they think of themselves has made them stronger than all others.