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Mark McCall focussed on 'mini project' after last weekend's thumping

By PA
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, looks on in the warm up prior to the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Saracens at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on January 06, 2024 in Leicester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Mark McCall has highlighted Saracens “mini project” comprising their next two games as they look to bounce back in European and domestic competitions.

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The three-time European champions are battling to remain in this season’s Investec Champions Cup following a 55-15 defeat against Bordeaux-Begles last weekend.

They are fighting it out with Gallagher Premiership rivals Bristol for one remaining qualification spot from their group.

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Saracens have won only two of their last seven matches in all competitions, and they host Lyon on Saturday 24 hours after Bristol’s final pool fixture against Connacht.

In terms of the Premiership, McCall’s team entertain Exeter on Saturday week, having fallen four points adrift of the play-off pace with seven regular-season games remaining.

“There are two really important games to try to stay in the competitions we are in, (to) stay in touch with the Premiership,” Saracens rugby director McCall said.

“It is almost a 12-day mini project in a way, because we (then) have seven weeks post this without a game to have a proper deep dive into where we are at and to reset once we get our (international) players back.

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“We have got this mini project over two games and five training sessions to get the best out of the group.”

As for next season and beyond, McCall says meetings have already taken place with the players “who will grab hold of it” as Saracens embark on what he describes as “a new adventure”.

A number of players who were key to Saracens’ sustained European and Premiership successes over the past 10 years are unlikely to be involved after this summer.

Some will be out of contract and departing, and others retiring, while club captain Owen Farrell has been strongly linked to joining French heavyweights Racing 92 on a two-year deal.

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McCall did not offer an update on Farrell’s situation during his pre-Lyon media session on Thursday, although he did confirm that he knew what decision Farrell had made.

“Everybody realises the adventure we’ve been on is coming to an end, and there is a new adventure about to start with a group of younger players we are incredibly excited about who have signed up for the longer term,” McCall added.

“Obviously, we want to finish this journey well, and we are going to try to do that as well as we can.

“But if you are going to try to go on a new journey, having who has been there and done it before who are still ambitious, who are still competitive, still on top of things, is really important.

“Players are going to retire or they are in the twilight of their careers – it is just the cycle of a team.

“I suppose all good things come to an end, and there is a re-energising effect and impact of a new group.

“We have met with the players who we believe will grab hold of it over the next three or four years. We have met with them regularly over the past couple of months.

“There is a new dawn coming, and it is exciting for everybody.”

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Poorfour 5 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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