Friday 20 September 2019

We are in a better place this year, warns Sarries head coach McCall

Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It's Monday afternoon of the biggest week of the season and it is time to set the tone for what is to come this weekend.

Saracens head coach Mark McCall is taking a conference call with a group of Irish journalists and before anyone gets a chance to jump in on the burning issue, it is made clear that no questions regarding Billy Vunipola will be answered.

With his Northern Irish lilt, the softly-spoken McCall insists that he would rather just speak about the game and in an ideal world that would be fine, only it is difficult to ignore the elephant in the room.

Since Vunipola came out and defended Israel Folau's controversial comments, McCall has had the bat away the inevitable barrage of questions regarding his star No 8. The club have since formally warned Vunipola about his future conduct.

Addressed It's the last thing that the former Ireland international wants to be dealing with ahead of his side's Champions Cup semi-final with Munster on Saturday, yet it is an issue that won't go away any time soon.

While McCall opted not to discuss the matter, he did at least confirm that Vunipola is available for selection, which confirmed that no disciplinary action involving any kind of suspension was on the cards after discussions were held on Sunday.

On to matters on the pitch, which is what the agenda should be dominated by this week as Munster look to end their semi-final hoodoo against a rejuvenated Sarries outfit under McCall, who continues to do an outstanding job.

Munster feel that they have made significant strides since being beaten at the same stage of the tournament by Saracens two years ago, but the problem Johann van Graan's men face is that their opponents are also hurting from last season, when they were humbled by Leinster in the quarter-final.

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"We know that Munster, Leinster and Ulster all have great affinity with this competition and over the last six or seven years our squad have also fallen in love with the competition," McCall insists.

"It was tough, losing in the quarter-final last year. We deserved to be beaten. Leinster were outstanding.

"But I think it made our group, after winning the two finals the two years before that, really hungry to do well this season. It was a painful experience the way we lost in the Aviva. That said, I think this group have grown to love this competition.

"This is our sixth semi-final in seven years, which is something we can be proud of, but we want to go all the way. There was definitely a renewed hunger this season.

"I think some of the Premiership teams might target the Premiership, but I know our group see this as the pinnacle and a competition they really, really want to do well in."

Munster will be buoyed by their performances against English opposition during the pool stages as they emerged from a tough group that included Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester. And that is where the majority of Saracens' focus will lie this week as opposed to their last meeting with Munster in 2017.

"I always think it's dangerous to look back too far, to be honest," McCall maintains. "I would be much more concerned with looking at their recent performances. Just how tough they are to break down, how tough they are to play against. It's difficult to get quick ball against them.

"Their defence is the area that I see as the thing that they have most improved. It's difficult to win set-piece ball against them and I think they have added some strings to their bow in attack.

"So just a really good all-round team and they did a very good job at home to Exeter, who are flying in our competition over here and I think Exeter scored a try after seven or eight minutes that day and then kept them scoreless apart from that, which was a hell of an achievement.

Fundamental "There is no obvious weaknesses. They do the fundamental things brilliantly, so we know we are in for a really tough challenge on Saturday."

Having won back-to-back titles before Leinster knocked them off their perch last season, there is a renewed vigour about Saracens, even if Vunipola's off-field antics are a totally unwanted distraction.

"It was funny last year, when we got to that quarter-final, Ireland were off the back of winning the Grand Slam," ex-Ulster boss McCall adds.

"England were off the back of a difficult season, so both groups of players came back with different frames of mind.

"We had some players who weren't around for that match; Billy being one, Michael Rhodes being another, Vincent Koch and a few others.

"I think we are a bit healthier this time around. We have more or less got the squad that we want available.

"I think we are in a better frame of mind than we were last year."

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