Saracens building identity and tearing down perceptions

Mark McCall has played key role in helping build north London rugby powerhouse

 Maro Itoje looks on during a Saracens training session  in St Albans, England ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Munster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Maro Itoje looks on during a Saracens training session in St Albans, England ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Munster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images


“I did find it a bit of a circus when I arrived. It took me a few months to get used to it. Apache helicopters landing in the middle of a training session. What’s that all about? But there is no doubt that Saracens have made me a better person as well as a better player.” – Chris Ashton (who joins Toulon this summer).

Room exists for many types of individuals at Saracens FC. The English champions’ story is not about any one man. Not Mark McCall, nor Brendan Venter. Two cogs in a very big wheel enlarged by Nigel Wray selling half the club to billionaire Johann Rupert in 2008.

This is certainly not about the forthcoming £7 million salary cap (Premiership Rugby Limited were unable to prove that Saracens or Bath breached the previous £5 million limit in 2014). Some of this tale must be about Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell; young Grand Slammers who provide proof that a heavy South African identity has been meshed with a stunning array of English talent that has propelled the north London powerhouse to the pinnacle of European rugby.

Six Saracens were named in the British and Irish Lions squad this week. George Kruis was injured for the entire Six Nations but “Itoje’s mentor” made it on reputation. The 22-year-old phenomenon, the Vunipola brothers and Farrell are joined by Jamie George, who fended off England captain Dylan Hartley.

This present incarnation look superior to the Sarries side that destroyed Munster in 2015. Munster are no longer performing on that earthly plain either. Mark McCall, Saracens director of rugby, concurs with the highest compliment an opposing coach can offer.

“Of all the teams we analyse week in, week out they work the hardest, they scramble and fight for each other. If we are not prepared to work as hard as them we are going to have a hard day at the office.”

Still, matching Saracens blow for blow – as Toulon and others have done – has not been enough to stop them racking up 16 straight Champions Cup victories (breaking Munster’s previous record of 13 from 2005-07).

“The history of Saracens in the first 11 or 12 years of professional rugby was one of massive inconsistency and a lack of continuity,” McCall quietly explained this week. “There was a bit of a revolving door, players and coaches came and went. Eight years ago the club made the decision that that definitely wasn’t the way forward.”

Dr Venter was recruited following the influx of Rupert’s millions.

“Having looked at other successful organisations, like Leinster, Munster, Wasps and Leicester back in the day it was clear that success chiefly came from keeping people for as long as we could, keeping players together, keeping staff together, building relationships and a way of doing things.

“It is literally as simple as that.”

In sport, history shows us, the magical touch tends to be instant yet fleeting. Michael Cheika has it. Jose Mourinho. Davy Fitzgerald.

Rassie Erasmus, undoubtedly.

Venter departed after 18 months – so McCall was promoted from first-team coach – but in the summer of 2009 the former Springbok centre made drastic alterations to the roster left behind by Eddie Jones.

A massive cull saw 18 players either released or bought out of their contracts.

“There were players there under contract who Brendan, coming in, obviously didn’t think were part of the future of the club,” McCall explained. “And rather than waiting two years for them to be out of contract he asked the club would they be able to look after them financially.

“He wanted it to be a proper fresh start, which was obviously quite a big deal at the time, but when you see our 23-man squad for this weekend, it is extraordinary how often they have played alongside each other now. They are all up to 150, 200 games with a couple of exceptions.”

Saracens will never be like Munster because none of the players hail from the club’s catchment area. That area is hard to define; the training ground is a 30 minute drive to Allianz Park in north London.

So the club recognised the need to create a family environment. That starts with a crèche at the training ground (The Daily Telegraph reports 35 children have been fathered by Saracens players in recent years).

“None of us are trying to say what we do is the way to do it but it’s not like being in Ulster or being from somewhere else,” observed McCall. “We operate out of St Albans [a small city in Hertfordshire] and I don’t think any of our players are born there. It’s not like families are around the corner so it was very important to us to create a family atmosphere for the English-based players in our academy. We work hard on the player to player relationships, player to staff relationships, staff to staff relationships.

“Time is one of those factors but by having the crèche means the wives and girlfriends get to know each other. Those sort of things, nothing terribly earth shattering to be honest, but that has grown to be important to the players.”

This is undoubtedly a club driven by huge financial investment but these bonds sound genuine.

Yet it can’t be that simple. The “wolf pack”, to describe how they defend, the “Saffercens” media tag all seem like easy labels.

McCall, capped 13 times by Ireland, has unobtrusively done so much to build the ethos.

Jeremy Davidson took his former team-mate’s coaching career off life support with a stint down in Castres after Ulster put him out to pasture following three seasons coaching his home province. The Bangor native’s promotion perhaps came too soon. Having led the Ireland under-21s to the 2004 World Cup – when Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe et al reached the final – he took leave of Ireland before the tournament commenced to replace Alan Solomons in Ravenhill.

Venter recruited a man he played alongside at London Irish.

“That’s right, we played together in the centre and years later I was deciding whether to go back to Ireland or stay in France when Brendan called me up and told me what was going to happen. Sometimes you get lucky and find yourself in the right place at the right time.

“Obviously it has grown well over the last eight seasons. In the first two seasons we overachieved, I would say. Lost to Leicester [in the Premiership final] and then in the second year we won a final against Leicester but each year we have got a small bit better.

“What we wanted to achieve was to make sure the club was never dependent on any one person. So if that person or coach left the club, that things didn’t fall apart. We have had some high-profile people leave the club, like Andy Farrell, Brendan, Steve Borthwick, Paul Gustard and we’ve been okay. That’s a good sign that all the way through the club it is solid.”

All four men are now coaching at international level. Venter, the 47-year-old Cape Town GP, never follows a linear coaching path; recently taking leave of Conor O’Shea’s Italy – not before masterminding that glorious Twickenham debacle – to rejoin the Springboks.

“He is just a friend of mine and we still talk,” said McCall. “What Brendan did superbly, with that incredible personality that he has, is he started the project in a speedier way than anyone else could have because of the conviction he brought. He wasn’t here that long but for the next year he came back every six weeks.

“The club means a lot to him and he was instrumental in how it started. Edward Griffiths as well, he was the CEO then, they did things a little bit differently which I think was very important in kick-starting everything as quickly as they did.”

There are 24 English qualified players listed in the current Saracens squad and seven South Africans (with one Irishman in Westmeath lock Mark Flanagan) but, forever more, Itoje and Farrell must be recognised as the pillars upon which so much recent and future success is built.

“Sometimes there are misconceptions, and maybe six years ago you could say there is a lot of foreign imports, but maybe the pack who plays this weekend will have five or six who have come through our academy, all 26 and under, which is really encouraging if we can hold on to them and they stay hungry.

“It’s important to have a bit of an identity,” McCall continued. “We were always a club with a South African flavour. Maybe that’s changed a little bit over the years as more of our academy players come through but we do need to supplement the group when losing our international players for large periods of the Premiership. We want to do that from below but take Jim Hamilton, who has done great when Maro and George are not there.

“You are right about Maro and Owen, they are hugely driven and when they come back from international duty – just like Mako, Billy, Jamie and George Kruis – they are always bring incredible energy and lift the standard.”

Saturday represents a timely return to Dublin for the Vunipolas, George, Farrell and Itoje. All five were involved in the Peter O’Mahony-inspired shellacking meted out on March 18th.

“Time will tell whether it has been a good thing or not,” said McCall before heaping genuine praise on the opposition: “I’m no expert on Rassie but I have obviously watched this team a lot. I think he recognised early where the attention needed to go. Their kicking game is superb, their chasing game, their aerial game but also defensively they have gone to a completely different level, conceding the fewest tries in both competitions this year which is remarkable. Their lineout is exceptional, their lineout maul is good and they’ve got some people who can really hurt you as well.”

Undoubtedly, Munster face the best club team on the planet in Dublin today. Sounds like 2004 against Wasps all over again but McCall remembers another day.

“I was there in 1999 against Colomiers when there was 40-50,000 Ulster fans and it was incredible. I think it is going to be like that again.

“I look back on the early 2000s when Munster then Leinster went at it with teams like Wasps and Leicester. It is a pleasure to be part of it now.”

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