Writes Sam Curtin
As a journalist, it is important to be unbiased, fair and objective in your writing. However rules are meant to be broken as the saying goes.
It’s been a similar season so far for both Ireland and Saracens. Both were at the peak of their powers 12 months ago. Yet, almost simultaneously, it has all come crashing down. Ireland crashed and burned at the Rugby World Cup and recently in another humbling defeat at Twickenham. Saracens on the other hand, have crashed and burned financially where they have been consigned to Championship rugby for next season due salary cap breaches.
It’s important to cut new head coach Andy Farrell (a former Saracens player himself) some slack, he is only a few weeks into his new post and it is his first head coach position. It’s extraordinary to think this could be possible but we were living in extraordinary times. As of February 2019, Ireland had just beaten the All Blacks, becoming the second ranked side in the world, favourites for the World Cup and were Grand Slam winners when Farrell was appointed to the top job with Joe Schmidt essentially choosing him as his successor due to his excellent job as defence coach under the Kiwi.
There are certainly arguments for continuity and that Farrell by all accounts, is a different coach to Joe Schmidt but having a rookie head coach has rarely worked at club level, nevermind in Test Rugby. He is by all accounts an excellent defence coach who transformed Ireland’s defence since being brought in 2016. However, one cannot help wondering what another Saracens man could do at present.
Saracens head coach Mark McCall is undoubtedly one of the most renowned figures in the club game at present. An Ulster man born and bred, a Heineken Cup winner with Ulster in 1999 and the last man to lead Ulster to silverware in 2006 with a Celtic Cup (now Pro14) win. The 13 cap Irish international had a falling out with the club and left his post soon afterwards where after a brief spell at Castres, Saracens came calling in Autumn 2009 as an assistant coach to Brendan Ventner.
Ventner left midway through the 2010/11 season and McCall became Director of Rugby. He has since overseen an era of unprecedented success at the club which has seen them win 5 Premierships, 3 European Cups. Yet he is unknown to many in his native homeland.
So who is Mark McCall? He is known for being a quiet and modest figure who generally turns down interviews with the media and rarely gives too much away in his press conferences. Behind the mask lies a cold, callous figure who is ruthless in his decision making and his tactical nous has made him a coach to be revered with.
McCall could be the man to turn Ireland’s fortunes around where some of his greatest strengths lie in Ireland’s key areas of the pitch. In recent years Ireland have relied heavily on their halfbacks dictating play and being the main playmakers where one off runners from rucks has been a common theme. Thus Ireland have been criticised as being too narrow and conservative but McCall has implemented a similar system at Saracens to huge success. Add this with a little bit more freedom given to players such as Jordan Lamour and Garry Ringrose then suddenly you have an evolved and potent attacking threat while also maintaining the continuity that has been stressed since Farrell was appointed. A similar gameplan but an updated version.
Former Ulster teammate and Castres head coach Jeremy Davidson agrees that his former colleague would be a very suitable candidate. “I would like to think so because he is the most successful coach in Europe. He has created such an incredible legacy at Saracens.” Heineken Cup and Grand Slam winner Peter Stringer concurs with this and spoke of his admiration for what McCall was doing during his brief loan spell with the club. “The first thing I noticed was how happy an environment it is and that’s credit to him. He has an ability to keep a big squad really happy in the way he rotates players. You know four or five weeks in advance the games in which you are going to be playing.”
Both men also spoke of his ruthlessness and has no fear of making big decisions with regards to selection which was a criticism thrown at Joe Schmidt in his latter days as Irish coach. The consensus was that he was too afraid to move away from the tried and trusted servants who had done it for him in the past but perhaps were on the decline. The World Cup was an example of this where long time fullback Rob Kearney was chosen over the in form Jordan Lamour. This has not changed so far under Farrell. 11 players who started at Twickenham would have been considered front line players at the World Cup while the other four were on the bench against New Zealand in the Quarter Final. This Six Nations should be about building a squad for the next World Cup in France in 2023 by integrating new players into the squad. However with the exception of Caelan Doris and Max Deegan who have had limited minutes so far, it is very much as you were, at present.
Of course, the elephant in the room has to be addressed. Saracens recent financial dealings have been found out and punished in a justly manner but McCall and the players deserve little criticism for this. The clubs directors have been the ones doing dodgy business off the pitch while the management and playing staff having been doing the business on it. McCall has brought a struggling midtable side to the pinnacle of English and European rugby within a decade and that is something to be applauded.
Another important factor to be considered is whether or not McCall is actually interested in the a international job as he spoke about his reluctance at present to move. Speaking in the lead up to the Munster game back in December, McCall said “ It’s a thought which is very far from my mind I’ve got to say. I really enjoy the day to day. I enjoy what I do and I haven’t really thought about it.”
This message needs to be very clear. This is not a call for Farrell to be relieved of his duties any time soon or that he does not have what it takes to be a successful head coach. This simply a reminder of what we could be missing out on, a world class coach, native to our island who is ready to step up to the pinnacle of this sport.
With an Irish squad in transition and Saracens left to rebuild next year, there may no better time than now.