Quiet man McCall happy to be part of Castres revolution

Castres backs coach Mark McCall has every reason to be happy as he relaxes beside the pool at his home in the South of France, for he still has “the bug” for coaching success.

Since he joined the club’s management team – which includes fellow Irishman Jeremy Davidson – at the end of last year, McCall has helped transform Castres from relegation candidates to contenders for a place in the European Cup.

But, as befitting the down-to-earth 41-year-old Bangor man, he’s quite happy to let others take the praise.

“It’s not all because of me. A lot of the credit goes to Alain Guillard (sports director), since he’s come in he’s helped turn the club around. He has worked hard to improve the morale here,” McCall told AFP.

But in December things were looking a whole lot different – for both club and McCall, who asides from being Ulster coach had also captained them and played for them 50 times and in the process earned 13 Irish full caps.

Castres – a side with a fiercely proud reputation – were floundering second bottom of the French championship with three defeats in four matches, there was rising dissent in the team and morale had bottomed out.

Enter McCall, in place of former French international back Ugo Mola, and the turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular – if sixth-placed Castres win on Saturday they will be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s finest next season.

“There’s no doubt about it, our number one priority when I came here was to stay in the championship, but now we have a different target,” McCall says.

“Fundamentally, there’s always been a good team here, there’s always been good players.

“At the start of this season the side just got off to a poor start, and it only took a couple of good wins to get a bit of momentum in the team. It’s as simple as that,” he added, recalling the club’s record of three French championships (1949, 1950 and 1993) A couple of good wins, indeed.

Simple, no. Castres had to fight hard to get where they are today – most notably a thrilling 15-14 home victory against league leaders Clermont in January and a trouncing of rivals Montauban in March.

The tide had turned.

Now all they have to do is beat struggling Albi – who Castres have already comprehensibly defeated this season – and it’s hello Europe.

Ironically, that opens up the possibilty that McCall could face his former club Ulster.

An embattled McCall resigned last November after a string of bad results left the Irish club with only four victories in 12 matches, ending a successful three-and-a-half year tenure that saw them win the Celtic League in 2006.

His departure came after the opening European Cup pool game against Gloucester, when the Irish province conceded five tries, losing 32-14 -which effectively put paid to their hopes of qualification after only one game.

Does McCall feel he still has a point to prove? “Not at all. I’m proud of what happened at Ulster. I was looking for a new challenge and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to come to France,” he says.

“What was important for me was to see if I still had the bug’ for coaching, an appetite for the game. And I still have,” laughs McCall.

“I’ve brought my two young children down here and I think it’s a really good experience for them. No matter what happens. We were swayed by the thought of having a family experience.” McCall, glances up at the southern sun as it begins its descent for the evening. The birds are singing.

“All round we are very happy and settled.”

Sapa-AFP – Rugbyweek.com

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