Heineken Cup 2014: Saracens have come a long way, says Mark McCall

Heineken Cup 2014: Mark McCall says the Saracens have come a long way since their thrashing by Clermont in 2012

owen farrell
Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell Photo: The Sport Review

Mark McCall believes Saracens have come a long way since their 2012 Heineken Cup quarter-final thrashing at the hands of Clermont Auvergne.

The director of rugby, who was at the helm for the 22-3 defeat at Vicarage Road, doesn’t have the fondest of memories of the defeat.

I know how far we’ve come—it’s obvious. It was men against boys [against Clermont] last time, it’s not going to be like that this weekend

Mark McCall

“We would hold our hands up and say that day was a little bit of ‘men against boys’,” he said.

“We felt we were playing with one hand tied behind our back, that we were fighting against people more powerful and more explosive than us.

“It marked the point when we decided to go about things differently in the strength and conditioning department.

“We changed the people who were working in that area and changed our player recruitment policy too.”

The Aviva Premiership league leaders have struggled against French opposition in recent years, going down twice to four-time European champions Toulouse in the pool stages of this year’s competition.

Sarries exited at the semi-final stages last year as Jonny Wilkinson kicked eventual champions Toulon to a 24-12 victory at Twickenham.

“The Toulon semi last year, they didn’t score a try that day, and we had an opportunity after half-time,” McCall added.

“We definitely had progressed from the Clermont game to that, and we feel we are in a much better position 12 months later now.

“I know how far we’ve come—it’s obvious. It was men against boys [against Clermont] last time, it’s not going to be like that this weekend.”

Saracens have moved nine points clear at the top of the Premiership with two rounds remaining, guaranteeing them a home semi-final at Allianz Park, and are on course for a famous double.

“We’ve got ourselves into a cracking situation and we need to take advantage of it.” McCall said.

“Just to get to the semi-finals for this group is not enough—we need to kick on and win something.”

Like Saracens, Clermont are aiming for a first Heineken Cup title after losing by one point in last year’s final in Dublin and former Ireland centre McCall is aware of the strengths they possess.

“Clermont have been in the knockout stages of this competition for seven years and have never won it,” he said. “And they’ve only won the Top14 once.

“There will be moments in the game when we think Clermont are bloody good and it’s then that we’ll need to be resilient, to hang in there and show some perseverance in the knowledge that it’s not going to last for ever.

“We can’t let it affect us. If we can start well, if we can have a really solid 25 or 30 minutes and put some doubt in their minds, it will make a difference.

“I think that if they get a lead, they are very good at holding you at arm’s length by playing a certain way and I think you’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The London outfit aren’t short of dangerous attackers with the tournament’s leading try-scorer Chris Ashton, Alex Goode, David Strettle and Owen Farrell among their backline.

But McCall reserved special praise for Clermont’s former All Blacks winger Sitiveni Sivivatu.

“You wouldn’t concentrate on one person, but if someone is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat it’s going to be Sivivatu,” McCall added.

“He is amazing. He’s got the most metres and off-loads in the European Cup and he pops up where you least expect him.

“If you switch off for just one second and you don’t stay alive and in the moment, he will hurt you.

“They have got a few players like that, but he’s the one who can hurt you big-time.”

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