James from RugbySaracens spoke recently at length with Mark McCall, Director of Rugby at Saracens. McCall discussed fostering a culture of continuity within the club, new arrivals, the importance of Saracens to England Rugby and, in his most strident comments, that something has to change about the relationship between the club, players and England, including laying a challenge to the RFU to ensure the summer tour to Japan in 2020 is a development squad and not for senior players.
Mark McCall is an impressive figure who has led Saracens to more trophies than any other Premiership Rugby Director of Rugby in history: last season was their third Champions Cup win in four years and their fourth Premiership in five years. How does someone so successful spend his brief summer break? By continuing to learn and striving to improve.
Learning from the Storm
In August, McCall and Phil Morrow, Saracens Performance Manager, went to Melbourne to spend some time with one of the leading Australian rugby league sides, the Melbourne Storm.
“They are a fascinating club, one who we have had a relationship with for the last seven years. Their coach [Craig Bellamy] has been there for seventeen years. They have been consistently successful. We always think it’s important to visit other clubs who do things well, so we went over to visit them and learnt some things. They were good enough to set up an information-sharing day with Scott Robertson from the Crusaders and a couple of Aussie Rules teams there, who are incredibly well-run organisations, more established than rugby union sides. So, it was a very productive seven or so days for Phil and I to not just recharge our batteries, but to stimulate you too.”
McCall talked about the key takeaways he learnt from that experience.
“There are always little things in terms of how they run meetings, run sessions, but those are the small things in a way, but what impressed me most when I was there was just how cohesive the organisation was, how much people cared about their club, were proud of their club and a lot of that is because of how the staff are ex-players. There is a feeling about the club that you don’t get at other clubs and we hope that’s we are trying to achieve.”
Continuity is a watch word for the coaching set-up at Saracens
McCall reflected also on the issue of continuity that was so evident at Melbourne Storm and Crusaders.
“The big change in Saracens from the first ten years to the second ten years has been the continuity in the people, whether that’s player or staff. The fact that we’ve got people like Adam Powell and Kelly Brown running our Academy now is along the lines we saw at the Melbourne Storm, where there are a lot of ex-players who do jobs there, developing young players from below. That was the most impressive thing. There was a feel about the club: everybody proud of the club, everybody having each other’s backs. We know that support network is so important.”
“No one has wanted to leave unless their country came in for them. We lost Andy Farrell and Paul Gustard, but we’ve been OK. When Farrell left, we promoted from within and Kevin Sorrell came up from the Academy. Ian Peel has been the only new addition really and he has done a great job for us. Joe Shaw came from the Academy and Joe’s turning into an outstanding senior coach. We’ve had a lot of continuity in our coaching staff but also our performance staff as well: Andy Edwards, Phil Morrow, Kevin Barrett, Ben Pollard and Sean Vine have all been there a very long time. I think that establishes really close relationships with players and we really get to know our players. We get to know when there are problems a bit quicker some clubs do, and those sorts of things have been really important.”
The Saracens Director of Rugby was keen to stress that retaining players and continuity of personnel was important in the playing squad too.
“We don’t want people to want to leave. We want people to think this is a good place to be a professional rugby player. Part of that is stimulating them and challenging them to get better but at the same time making the place fun to be at and a place where you can be yourself genuinely and know that people in the club have got your back. I think people enjoy the atmosphere that exists there. It’s not something we take for granted but having been to the Melbourne Storm and seeing how they operate, and having talked to Scott Robertson who was also there at the same time as us from the Crusaders, they have got a similarly cohesive team.”
“They have been there or thereabouts for seventeen season [under coach Craig Bellamy] and I think won it four times. It’s hard to win the NRL. It’s hard to win anything. To be at the top half, to be a consistent club, consistently there or thereabouts, is we wanted when this project [at Saracens] began 10, 11 years ago. I think what we’ve established a consistency of approach that wasn’t there before.”
Goals are for others
Preseason is a time for many clubs to set goals and targets for the season. According to McCall, not at Saracens though.
“We haven’t set goals since I’ve been at the club. We talk about the kind of group we want to be on the field and the kind of group off the field and judge ourselves on those things. A lot of them probably think it’s easier to do that than set those kinds of goals. We’re much more interested in how we’re going to be, and the environment we want to work in, day to day. That’s something we need to revisit on a regular basis. It’s a balance between coming to a place where you can be yourself, a place where you are going to enjoy your day but also when the time is right to flick the switch, get better and focus. I think we do that quite well at the moment and the balance is good. It’s something you’ve got to be watchful of. People don’t just want to have a good time: they want to be stimulated and challenged in the right way.”
Saracens have a record fifteen player in the various Rugby World Cup squads (and another, Richard Wigglesworth, coaching with Canada). I asked what that meant for those who are here to start the season.
“There’s a great opportunity for our younger players but also for our more senior players to develop their leadership as well. We’ve been encouraged by a lot of younger players who have made some decent strides forward now such as Matt Gallagher, Rotimi Segun, Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe, Ralph Adams-Hale. There are a lot of younger players who we think should establish themselves as Premiership players this year. In the 2015 World Cup, Maro [Itoje] will say that that was when he got his chance with George Kruis and Jim Hamilton away. It’s the opportunity: your journey has to begin somewhere and his started then. Hopefully we’ll look back in four years’ time and say that a player’s journey started here.”
New season, new players?
How have the new arrivals this summer, those not on international duty, settled in?
“Really well. Josh Ibuanokpe came from Quins. He’s a player of real potential who’s going to play a lot in the first six weeks or so of the season.”
“Sam Wainwright came from really an amateur club. He’s a 21-year-old. His first stab at being in a professional environment. He’s super motivated, really keen, tough as nails, going to be a really good player and we’re really excited about Sam.”
“And Alex is somebody who has been in a professional environment and was at Northampton for quite a long period of time, but he took himself away from that to get regular rugby. He did that at Cornish Pirates. Week in week out he was playing senior rugby at a good level. Now he wants to test himself and see if he can play Premiership rugby. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen so far.”
To what extent has the World Cup call-up of another new signing, Rhys Carré, affected pre-season planning?
“We’ve now got seven front row forwards away [at the World Cup] and we were expecting just five to be away. We were not expecting Rhys or Jack Singleton to be away to be honest. We are delighted for Jack and it provides Tom Woolstencroft, Joe Gray and KP [Kapeli Pifeleti] with opportunities. Kapeli has received his three caps from America so now he’s back [from San Diego Legion in US Major League Rugby] and fully part of our Academy but he’s young, nineteen years old.”
“On the loosehead side, we’ve got Baz Barrington, who had a great end to last season, and Ralph, but we need to keep them healthy, and we’ve got a young guy called Sam Crean who again has had a very promising first year at the club. We thought we’d have Rhys, but we don’t, and the experience will be very good for him. We’ll see him in due course.”
McCall stressed that the player development, rather than results, was key for the club’s longer-term planning and that the World Cup absences meant an opportunity for other players to begin their journeys in the first team.
“In this particular instance, your hand is forced: there’s a World Cup. We are proud of the fact we have got so many players representing the club.”
“Although the headline acts last season were the Champions Cup and Premiership, underneath that there was a lot more to be satisfied by: the way we were in winning the Premiership Shield and in the Cup; the emergence of a lot of young players I’ve already name-checked; but underneath that the likes of Andy Christie, Elliott Obats [Obatoyinbo] and Sean Reffell. There’s a lot of players that we are really excited about. Your journey has got to start somewhere, like I said earlier, and the only way they are going to get better is to get exposed. We’ll see how we go results-wise, but may be results won’t be the be-all and end-all in the beginning but their development will be, and in two to three years’ time we’ll look back at this time as a crucial time in the development of the player pool.”
Saracens’ importance to England
If England do win the World Cup in November, Eddie Jones will rightly receive plaudits for his role as the national head coach. Underneath that though lies the importance of Saracens to the national side. Eight players and Eddie, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, all former Saracens coaches and or players, arguably form the spine of the squad. McCall stressed that Saracens players, and their success in recent years, will be important factor in the World Cup quest.
“We are probably going to be fundamental to England’s chances there in particular. Any team that’s won the World Cup has had a big representation from some club. Those players from Saracens have played in a lot of knock-out matches in the last six years. There are thirty possible knock-out games we could have possibly played, and the club played in twenty-seven of them which is a pretty phenomenal record. It’s a record we should be proud of and players are used to playing those games and winning those games and I think that will hold England in good stead.”
A new class at Saracens?
What about the future for the club? McCall identified the next Academy generation coming through the squad as potentially as successful as the famous Class of 2008 which included Owen Farrell, Jamie George and George Kruis.
“We like to talk about them not as individuals but more about the group they are. They are very close: Matt Gallagher, Tom Whiteley, Max Malins, Dom Morris, Roti Segun and Ali Crossdale and others. They remind us a little bit of the old group of Owen, Jamie, George and so on. What we’ve tried to remind them is that Jamie’s year group al came through at different stages. They didn’t all hit the ground running. Owen did, but Jamie and George took some time and they have to trust us to bring them through at the right pace and in the right way. Younger men now are more impatient than they were ten years ago. I hope they are all close together enough to stay at the club, to develop together, because if they do there is a very exciting future for them here. Everyone has an agent now and our younger players are more attractive to other clubs than they have ever been, so we have a big fight on our hands.”
One to leave in recent times was Nathan Earle. However, McCall explained that was different.
“He was a great young player who wanted more game time and was frustrated at not playing in the big matches. We couldn’t guarantee he was going to play in the big matches because we have Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and people like that. That frustration was going to become something worse than that and then it was healthier for everybody if Nathan went to Quins. He has had a great time because he has been playing more. It was good for Nathan and it was OK for the club and has allowed Ali Crossdale to come through, so I think it’s OK. But this younger group, who are younger than Nathan was when he left, they just need to bide their time. I fully expect two or three of them to be regular first team players at the end of the year.”
Player welfare challenge to the RFU
It’s probably the hottest topic in the game. The Saracens Director of Rugby stressed how important it is for the club but questioned whether the RFU and England Rugby were doing enough or had the right relationship with the clubs. This felt like an argument bubbling very close to the surface that we’ll hear much more of during the season.
“I think as a club we are brilliant at looking after our players’ welfare. For example, at the end of the Six Nations we had six regular season games and Owen played two, and Maro played two. You must remember we play their full salaries. England don’t contribute to their salaries at all. After the World Cup it will be us that gives them all four weeks off before they go back for the Six Nations. So, it’s the club that picks up the slack, but we understand that is important to them, for them, for their future, but also to get the best out of them at the end of the year when it really counts. But there is a big conversation to be had about why we pay all their salaries.”
Japan 2020 – a tour too far?
“There is a tour to Japan next summer. There is a lot of talk about player welfare and that they should be rested after the World Cup. As far as I know, none of the senior England players don’t want to go to Japan, so at some point they need to, and the RFU need to take a stance that we’re not going to take any of the senior players to Japan and use it as a development tour. Let’s rest the players who have the biggest load.”
“We have had 27 play off matches in the last five years which is a season. It’s an extra season we have played as a club, but at the moment we feel as a club we are the ones resting them. At the moment, there is a chance to rest them during next summer’s England tour of Japan and we very much doubt that is going to happen. The players want to play in Japan, but it needs to be taken out of their hands. There is a bigger debate than just are we aware of their game time. We think we look after them brilliantly and I hope they think we look after them brilliantly, because we are, but this year with eight games to go after the Six Nations I hope we are in a similar position to be able to have the flexibility we had last season. We might not be able to and we might need them in all eight games and the play-offs to go, so there’s difficult decisions.”
“Billy has played in all four England warm-up games. He is allowed to play thirty games a season. That’s the cut-off point. He’s in line to play sixteen international matches this year which allows him to play fourteen games for Saracens.”
McCall then set out that Billy could need to play in the six Champions Cup pool games and potentially another five Cup and Premiership play-off games. That leaves only three Premiership regular season appearances.
“He plays more for England than he does for Saracens and yet we play his salary. Something has got to change. It’s a big debate that has to be had.”
James @RugbySaracens for RugbyUnited, September 2019