Saturday 16 December 2017

Don't doubt McCall's band of brothers

Understated Irish coach has overseen stunning Saracens evolution with South African values

Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, celebrates with Chris Wyles after his side defeated Munster last week. Photo: Getty Images
Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, celebrates with Chris Wyles after his side defeated Munster last week. Photo: Getty Images

Ian McGeechan

It is incredible to think how far Saracens have come in the past decade. I remember in my last season at Wasps, back when we won the Premiership in 2007/'08, we put 40 points on them around this time of year to move into the play-off places.

Saracens in those days were a little bit less predictable. They would produce good performances, but not back them up on a regular basis.

They had a long and proud history and had begun the professional era with a bang, picking up some marquee names in the late 1990s in Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, Francois Pienaar and Kyran Bracken.

But they did not really manage to build on that over the next 10 to 12 years. Nigel Wray pumped millions into the club, and they had become a significant presence in the league, but never quite had the consistency to dominate.

Watching Saracens first subdue and then completely dismantle Munster at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday, to make their third European final in the last four years, it was obvious what they stood for.

Saracens really are a band of brothers. Their identity is built on their powerful defence, their impregnability, their spirit, their togetherness. They have even given that identity a name: the Wolfpack. That might annoy some people. To me it is very clever indeed.

Mark McCall deserves so much credit for the way Saracens have transformed themselves into, in my opinion, the best club in the northern hemisphere. You can plot the progress from the day he and Brendan Venter came together in 2008/'09. Saracens had been through seven head coaches in eight years at that point. But from then on, things moved fast.

The South African businessman, Johann Rupert, and his consortium had come in, Saracens had had the so-called "night of the long knives" when a number of players were released, many of them replaced by South Africans; Schalk Brits. Neil de Kock, Brad Barritt.

It was a controversial time, but it proved to be inspired. The South African influence at Saracens has been hugely important - one of the critical ingredients - in helping to inculcate values of respect and hard work, which I have always admired about the attitude of South African rugby players.

McCall is an understated guy. He is not a front-of-shop, charismatic head coach in the Eddie Jones style. But he has been so clever in developing that atmosphere and that spirit. He brought in the right people, sometimes brought back the right people, and replaced them shrewdly when they left. Just look at the way Saracens have absorbed the departures of Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard. Their defence looks even better now.

That does not necessarily mean he would be a success if he moved to Ireland, say. McCall did not pull up trees at Ulster. But I have no doubt that he is currently the best coach in the Premiership. He deserves huge credit.

I am sure there will be talk of him being in the running to follow Joe Schmidt with Ireland, but after leaving Ulster, and from lessons learned there, he has created a chemistry and environment that takes time and is not always easy to replicate. I can see him being at Saracens for years to come simply because he is, with all at the club, on a collective journey, and that does not happen easily. I enjoy seeing what he has done, and I am pleased for Wray, a man who has invested in Saracens, and English rugby, for all the right reasons.

What I like about Saracens is the fact that when you walk through the door you know what it stands for. The culture is such that everyone respects one another. It does not matter who you are: player, coach, tea lady. You are a Saracen. I believe McCall has all the support staff in team meetings. Bryan Redpath went down from Yorkshire Carnegie to watch a training session during the pre-season. He came back so impressed at their levels of professionalism and at the atmosphere.

Open, understated, not guarded at all. The environment is both challenging and supportive. That is the perfect combination. I remember we had it for a time at Wasps. You could be having a fun time in training and then 10 minutes later, a switch is flicked and it is the most intense training you have ever seen.

Saracens are a team of self-improvers. Barritt, Chris Ashton, Richard Wigglesworth, Marcelo Bosch. These are not galacticos like at Toulon. They are guys who have become great together.

Then you have someone like Owen Farrell, who raises everyone's standards simply because of his work ethic and his ability to deliver under pressure, in much the same way Jonny Wilkinson did.

That ethos shines through all the time. I say it about the Lions but it is the midweek team that makes the Test team. That spirit of all-for-one and one-for-all. I thought Saracens showed that brilliantly when they came back from 15 to 20 points down against Northampton a few weeks ago with their back-up players.

In terms of their playing style they began conservatively; with their defence and their kicking game. Andy Farrell's influence was huge back then. He brought a lot of the intensity that gives them their identity. That emphasis on defence is not an original concept. Sean Edwards used to use it as his mantra at Wasps - "defence wins championships". And he was absolutely right. But Saracens have taken it to another level. And they have added facets to their game. McCall has shown faith in having the confidence to bring in young talents such as Maro Itoje. They can up the tempo, run back-line moves, offload as soon as they get front-foot ball or a metre of space.

Are Saracens the best club side in the world? They are the best in the northern hemisphere, certainly. It would be good to see them have the opportunity to take on the Super Rugby champions in a world club challenge. The great thing about Saracens is that they have been through failure. They have lost Champions Cup finals, Premiership finals. They have gone away and come back stronger.

Can they do what Leicester did and win the You would be a fool to bet against them.


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