A culture of success driven by project manager McCall

Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall celebrates after beating Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final at St James’ Park, Newcastle. Picture: Billy Stickland

Mark McCall leans against a wall, his back to one of the many framed photos celebrating the local football club’s storied past, as he processes questions about his own club’s route towards legendary status.

Saracens are the antithesis of Newcastle United.

Though founded in 1876, there is no sepia-tinted urge to reflect on their unheralded history. Successful now in a way fans of the Magpies could only dream, their support is a tiny fraction of that dedicated to the Toon.

They are an odd concoction of a club. A monied outfit built to win, thanks to the deep pockets of key backers and a side whose commitment to the English Premiership’s salary cap rules has been called into question.

That’s one side. The other is that of an outfit that has unearthed world-class talent from their academy and one whose pursuit of excellence has been founded on a team ethic that is all the harder to foster when money is no object.

McCall is the man at the centre of it.

He is a softly-spoken Ulsterman whose quiet demeanour is the very definition of the introverted leader. Not unlike Declan Kidney — whom he overtook as the most successful Irish coach in the European Cup on Saturday — in that respect.

There is no ‘me’ with McCall. He is 10 years in England and still a largely unknowable presence in rugby media circles. Ask him what satisfaction he takes personally from this third continental title and he very quickly diverts the focus elsewhere.

“The satisfaction that you get, genuinely, is when you see how happy everyone is. It’s not just about the players, it’s about the staff as well. We’ve got the same S&C (strength and conditioning) staff here together for the last nine years.

“They give a shit about the club and they care about their players and they will go to an ‘A’ League game in Bristol on Monday night, not because they have to go, but because they want to see the players they look after.”

McCall’s reliance on familiar faces holds on both sides of the whitewash. As with the staff, there has been an implicit trust placed in the players and that was evident at key points in St James’ Park on Saturday evening.

One example was highlighted for McCall afterwards. A nothing moment to most observers, it came 25 minutes in when Richard Wigglesworth, the replacement scrum-half, ran on to the field to speak with Owen Farrell who in turn had a word with Ben Spencer.

“It was a break in play for an injury,” said McCall. “I remember it... Richard is an unbelievably clever rugby guy and that wasn’t a coaching message. That was something he had seen and he is a wise old fox.

“We don’t go: ‘what’s he doing?’ We trust him to say something which is really sensible and Owen who is on the field and feels it a little bit more than the person who is delivering the message can determine what to do with that.”

Fifteen minutes later and McCall was once again happy to abstain from a central role. When the sides convened in their changing rooms at half-time it was Farrell, Brad Barritt, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George who did most of the talking.

Coaching manuals and leadership theories are updated constantly. The belief that player ownership is the way to go has been challenged in places by the counter argument that players need and, indeed, crave structure and certainty from above.

What Saracens have shown, in the same way that teams such as Leinster and Ireland have in recent times, is that both are key elements and that players with enough experience and familiarity with their coach’s wishes can be the drivers. That has been McCall’s great success.

Saracens' Alex Goode and Jackson Wray celebrate at the final whistle. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

He spoke on Saturday evening about the 2014 Heineken Cup final against Toulon in Cardiff and how Saracens, despite a superb first 25 minutes that day, were just never going to win that game once they went 10-3 in arrears.

They didn’t have the tools. They do now.

“There has been a real pass over of responsibility, leadership from the coaches to them. They are so clear on what is required in the week, how they want the week to feel. You would have loved to be in the dressing room at half-time to hear what some of our players were talking about and not the coaches.

“Thankfully the coaches generally agree with what they say but they are leading it and filling it and we don’t have to wait until half-time for those messages to be delivered because they are being delivered on the field and (this time) we needed to have a very intense and physical performance.”

Put it to McCall, tongue in cheek, that he has put together a template designed to make himself redundant and he laughs in agreement.

Don’t believe a word of it.

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