Monday 19 August 2019

Clarke primed to renew rivalry with Saracens and good friend McCall

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

BEFORE Mark McCall returns to Kingspan Stadium yet again on Friday, his old team-mate Allen Clarke will send him a friendly text.

The duo were team-mates on the only Ulster team to have won a European title in 1999 and it is the captain from that season who is presenting a major roadblock to them reaching the pinnacle again.

As director of rugby at English champions Saracens, McCall has ended his home province's interest in the European Cup at the quarter-final stage in two of the last three seasons and, after opening with a heavy defeat of Toulouse last weekend, he'll be keen to keep Ulster down again this season.

"I haven't spoken to Mark for three or four weeks now, but I will be texting him this week to say 'here we go again'. I've given him no abuse yet," Clarke said with a smile.

"I've tremendous respect for Mark. He's done tremendously well and I think we should all congratulate him on his success. I've worked closely with him, but I know from speaking to him, he is still a competitive individual and has good values and knowledge of the game.

"What's been interesting is the history between the two clubs over the last number of years. We have tremendous respect for Saracens who have performed so well in Europe over the past four seasons.

"Yes they knocked us out in the quarters a few seasons ago and it was a tight one at the end. But we haven't spoken a lot about that. We are living in the here and now and focused on Friday night.

"Obviously we recognise that Saracens have had a tremendous start to the season, they are undefeated and come with a tremendous squad of players with strength in depth."

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McCall is undoubtedly the most successful Irish coach operating in the professional game right now and has guided Sarries to the latter stages in Europe, but the English club have yet to get over the line.

They are a quality outfit, but Ulster have threats of their own and although they are missing some of their Irish internationals due to World Cup injuries, they will fancy their chances on home soil.

Ulster will be fresh after their opening game against Oyonnax was called off after Friday night's terrorist attacks in Paris. They have had no word on when it will be played, although the last weekend of the month has been mooted.

Clarke said director of rugby Les Kiss was contemplating changing the team that was named for that game as it was picked with Saracens in mind.

"What we try and intend to do is forward plan, looking at what team we are playing," the former hooker said. "You always profile your squad and your selections around the team you are playing so there could be a little tweak or two. We are still looking at a few things, but at the end of the day it will come down to the 23 players to play what will be a fairly attritional game. The last 20 minutes could be critical so your bench is fundamental."

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