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
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