Don’t doubt McCall’s band of broth­ers

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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - 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 back­line 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.

Mark McCall, Sara­cens’ di­rec­tor of rugby, cel­e­brates with Chris Wyles after his side de­feated Mun­ster last week

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