How Mel­bourne Storm are help­ing Sara­cens to ‘come out the other side’

Mark McCall has lent on rugby league giants for ad­vice after they bounced back from their own salary cap breach

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Rugby Union - By Daniel Schofield

Just hours be­fore the verdict on Sara­cens’ breach of the Premier­ship Rugby salary cap was an­nounced last year, direc­tor of rugby Mark McCall called Frank Ponissi, the direc­tor of foot­ball for the Mel­bourne Storm rugby league side in Aus­tralia.

Sara­cens and the Storm have a fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship go­ing back to 2012, where coaches visit each other’s fa­cil­i­ties, ex­chang­ing ideas on ev­ery­thing from strength and con­di­tion­ing to man­age­ment tech­niques. McCall, how­ever, was not phon­ing for small talk. He knew a gi­gan­tic storm was com­ing and he wanted to speak to some­one who had sur­vived a sim­i­lar tem­pest.

At the start of 2010, the Storm were the best club team in rugby league. They had just won the World Club Cham­pi­onship, their sixth tro­phy in four years. Then, on April 22, their world came crash­ing down when they were found to have run a shadow pay­ment scheme to star play­ers out­side of the NRL’s salary cap. The NRL stripped them of their tro­phies, fined them A$1.5 mil­lion (around £800,000) and re­moved all points for the rest of the sea­son.

“The par­al­lels are un­canny. We could not be rel­e­gated, but it was in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ous,” Ponissi said. “A lot of peo­ple thought the Storm would crum­ble as a re­sult. The club was only 13 years old in a town that is a staunch AFL town. Our fu­ture was at stake.”

The first thing that Ponissi and coach Craig Bel­lamy told McCall was that the long term goes out the win­dow. There will be un­ex­pected af­ter­shocks, so plan­ning can­not be done even on a day-by-day ba­sis. It has to be hour by hour.

The sec­ond, more im­por­tant point was that be­lief was cru­cial. Even if the tro­phies were not taken from Sara­cens, they would be tar­nished out­side the club. Al­low­ing such doubt to creep into the club would at­tack the foun­da­tions like Ja­panese knotweed.

“What we stressed upon them was cred­i­bil­ity and be­lief in what you have achieved over the last how­ever many years,” Ponissi said. “You have got to gen­uinely be­lieve in your meth­ods be­cause no one else is go­ing to. There was an ad­van­tage [be­cause of the salary cap], but all the suc­cess did not come from that. What made the club suc­cess­ful all those years was a spe­cial bond and cul­ture within the club. The other thing they wanted to know is at the time it felt like the end of the world. You kept think­ing, when’s it go­ing to end and are we go­ing to get through it? Giv­ing our story showed that you can come out of the other side. More than any­thing, the thing we prob­a­bly gave them was hope.”

Even with no points to play for, the Storm won 14 of their 22 games in the 2010 sea­son. In the sub­se­quent off-sea­son, they lost eight lead­ing play­ers, but cru­cially kept their coach­ing staff as well as the crown jew­els of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. They fin­ished 2011 sea­son top of the NRL ta­ble only to lose in the play-offs.

“I see our 2011 sea­son as the year where we re­built the club,” Ponissi said. “It will go down as one of our least tal­ented, but most suc­cess­ful teams. It was a hor­ri­ble time to go through, but that was the plat­form we built the fu­ture suc­cess of the club off.”

The Storm have since reached four Grand Fi­nals, win­ning two.

Ponissi re­mains in reg­u­lar touch with McCall and flew over to Lon­don to speak with the rest of the coach­ing staff this year. When Bel­lamy gave a speech via Zoom to the rest of the Storm or­gan­i­sa­tion on the 10th an­niver­sary of their pun­ish­ment, McCall was the only out­sider in­vited in.

For Alex San­der­son, the Sara­cens for­wards and de­fence coach, the Storm’s sup­port has been in­valu­able, “be­cause it is un­prece­dented in the union game, you don’t know what the shift in emo­tions that the play­ers are go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence or even the roller coaster that you go on per­son­ally”. He added: “They have the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, of what could hap­pen to your mo­ti­va­tional lev­els, what the most im­por­tant things are to fo­cus on in your rebuild, more than any­thing that you are not alone in the world.

“At that point, you are about as low as you can be. When you thought you got to the pin­na­cle of your game through hard work, for it to be po­ten­tially tar­nished in the eyes of the world. Like any­thing, good or bad, it passes. To hear that from some­one who has been through it gives you a lot of strength. They have been as suc­cess­ful since 2010 as they were be­fore it. They have proven that it is down to cul­ture. It can be done if you keep the spine of the team to­gether and the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­mains strong cul­tur­ally. If they can do it, why not us?”

De­spite their rel­e­ga­tion to the Cham­pi­onship, Sara­cens have also kept their crown jew­els, Maro Itoje and all, which Jack­son Wray, their stal­wart back row, be­lieves speaks vol­umes. “Those boys could have writ­ten their own cheques with other clubs and still played for Eng­land, but they chose to stay be­cause they be­lieve that the club will con­tinue to be suc­cess­ful,” he said.

Wray is adamant that there is “no chance” Sara­cens will change their in­ter­nal cul­ture, how­ever evo­lu­tion will hap­pen.

“In the past, when you are win­ning and suc­ceed­ing and have a very sim­i­lar team you don’t want to up­set the ap­ple­cart for fear of los­ing that edge,” San­der­son said. “You may not ad­dress some of the things that you think might con­tra­dict a healthy en­vi­ron­ment be­cause you want to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing. Now this gives us an op­por­tu­nity to do just that.”

For ex­am­ple, the most hated club in Eng­land will go out of their way to make friends in the Cham­pi­onship next sea­son.

“Nor­mally the game fin­ishes, we open up our lap­tops and we are do­ing stats up un­til mid­night,” San­der­son said. “We are go­ing to sack all that off and we are go­ing into every bar at each club to meet all the coaches, play­ers and fans.”

Ponissi has lit­tle doubt Sara­cens will re­turn to their perch atop the English game. Dur­ing his time in Eng­land, Ponissi at­tended Sara­cens’ match away to Northamp­ton. At that point, Sara­cens had noth­ing to play for, but still beat a ti­tle con­tender 27-21.

“That was the same fight and de­ter­mi­na­tion we had in 2010,” Ponissi said. “That’s when I knew they were go­ing to be OK.”

‘They have been as suc­cess­ful since 2010 as they were be­fore. If they can do it, why not us?’

Friend in need: Mark McCall of Sara­cens went to Mel­bourne Storm for ad­vice

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