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'My overall feeling was Mark's my friend, the biggest concern was for him'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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It was a jolting 70-word bolt from the blue statement that Saracens issued last Friday afternoon, announcing that long-serving boss Mark McCall was taking a break from his role due to medical reasons. There is still no clarity as to how long the hugely respected director of rugby will be away from his post but head coach Joe Shaw insisted this week it was business as usual at the London club despite the absence of their treasured Irishman. 

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That wasn’t the initial reaction, mind. Shaw and co understandably first had to absorb the shock that their friend would no longer be working with them for the next while. However, once that news sunk in, the show at Saracens got going again and they returned to Gallagher Premiership action 48 hours after the revelation about McCall. 

Shaw wasn’t present when a team that backs coach Kevin Sorrell took charge of was eventually beaten at Wasps, but delegating is something that the Saracens setup have become well used to in these pandemic times where someone’s availability can never be taken for granted due to the strict testing process and the results it churns out. 

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It’s why Shaw, one of ten staff members to ink contract extensions last April, has no major worries about heading up the Saracens operation with McCall indefinitely out of the loop. “The daunting prospect some might think isn’t that daunting because when you have got the likes of Kevin Sorrell, Dan Vickers, Adam Powell, Phil Morrow, it’s shared. It’s not a case of me just going, ‘Can you do this?’ They are already on it. 

“We have worked together for so long we know what needs to be done. It’s just a case of doing it. Doing press is different, Mark usually does that. When we talk about the selection we do that as a group, so there are little bits and bobs. Kev obviously took on the responsibility for last weekend when I wasn’t there.

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“All in all, we have lost somebody for a little while who is important to us and has an unbelievable rugby mind, but we have just got to share responsibility and kick on… The truth is as coaches we have all worked with each other for so long that just because you are an attack coach it doesn’t necessarily mean you just do attack. 

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“You can do the defence, you can do the kicking so when these things arise like it has for all the clubs for a period of time with Covid in particular and people haven’t been around, you need people to be able to step up.”

What was Shaw’s reaction, though, when he first learned Saracens would be without McCall for the next while? “I spoke to Phil, spoke to Mark and my overall feeling was Mark’s my friend so the biggest concern was for him. 

“The lucky thing for this group is the way it been put together from a management, backroom staff and even a squad point of view, when these kinds of things happen we want to be able to push forward the best way we can and with the senior staff we have got within the coaches, we will hopefully be in a position where we can do that.”

Shaw initially arrived at Saracens as an academy coach but he has been working with the senior team since 2013 and was promoted to head coach in January last year when Alex Sanderson exited to become director of rugby at Sale. What is his coaching style?   

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“I started in the academy so I was a development coach and came up to be a performance coach but ultimately I’m relationship-based. I like to get the best out of the players, I like to empower the players with responsibility. It’s much like Mark really. I don’t like to say too much and just let hard work behind the scenes do the talking for us.”

That hard work continues this Saturday with Bath the latest visitors to the StoneX in the Premiership. “The attitude for the majority of the game at Wasps was what we are looking for, to have that fight, to be able to scrap it out,” enthused Shaw. 

“We didn’t get some of our rugby right and that is the thing we have had to aim at for this weekend. We want the boys to go in with the same attitude they had for 80, 85 per cent of that game and we just need to be a little more accurate.”

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