EUROPEAN CUP: Ulster and Saracens have mutual respect for each other

Saracens'Director of Rugby Mark McCall
Saracens'Director of Rugby Mark McCall

The sold-out signs went up at Kingspan Stadium on Wednesday ahead of Friday night’s big European Champions Cup game when Ulster face Saracens in a massive pool one match.

It as much reflects the importance of the game for the home side, but also the fact one of the top and most consistent sides in Europe is visiting the Province.

Ulster Assistant Coach Allen Clarke

Ulster Assistant Coach Allen Clarke

Saracens are no strangers to Belfast - the sides last met in 2013 when the English Premiership kingpins won a controversial quarter-final which saw Ulster play most of the game with 14 players after Jared Payne was red carded.

A year later the sides meet again, this time at Twickenham and Saracens against triumphed in the quarter-final tie, going on to lose in the final to Toulon.

There is also the added spice that Saracens director of rugby is former Ulster coach Mark McCall.

But irrespective of the recent past history of these European heavyweights meeting underneath there is a mutual respect for each other - albeit for 80 minutes tomorrow night it may be put on hold.

McCall, a former Ireland international and Ulster player, is into his seventh year with Sarries and has enjoyed noted success with Aviva Premiership title successes and consistency in Europe with regular top eight and top four appearances in recent years - although winning the trophy outright has still eluded them.

McCall was coach of Ulster in 2006 when they won their last piece of silverware, the then Magners League (now Guinness PRO12) and assisting him was Allen Clarke.

The pair, who also lifted the European Cup with Ulster in 1999, will come face to face tomorrow night.

Ulster reached the final of the Heineken Cup in 2012 and they have been there or thereabouts in the PRO12 in recent years, but the silverware still eludes them. McCall, going into his seventh term at Saracens, has been able to place a trophy or two in the cabinet.

But there is no envy from Clarke.

Ulster’s assistant coach with special responsibility to the forwards, Clarke, said: “It is quite the opposite.

“I think it is important to congratulate and celebrate in someone like Mark and the success he has had with Saracens. And all credit to them.

“He is a proud Ulsterman and I know that. He is a good friend, someone I have a lot of time for.

“In 2006 it was a tremendous achievement *winning the Magners League) when you consider the resources we (Ulster) had then.

“But I think too often in life people do not recognise the successes of people from Ulster have had and Mark is a great ambassador for Ulster as far as I am concerned.”

He added: “We have a lot of respect for Saracens. We are concentrating on ourselves and we are working our way through the week and we have been focusing on things we can bring to the game to counter their strengths and hopefully show what we are about as a team as well.

“We are not reflecting on the past (when we played them before), this is a new time and I am looking forward to putting ourselves up to the challenge that presents itself this weekend.”

McCall was of a similar view and admitted he and the players were looking forward to going to Belfast.

“It is obviously a big game and it is an unbelievably tough place to go. But we are looking forward to the challenge.

“It will be tough, there is no doubt about that. We know what happened the last time we were, but that was in the past, it does not matter this weekend.

“That game has gone, both teams are different. This is a pool match in Europe with both teams trying to get as many points as they can.”

He added: “Everyone has got respect for each other.”

Ulster director of rugby, Les Kiss, had said last week he believed that Saracens were probably the favourites to come out of the group and in their opening game at home last weekend against Toulouse, they certainly sent out a statement with a 32-7 victory.

McCall said: “We were happy with parts of it. We thought we did a lot of good things in the first 40 minutes and then we were a little bit disappointed that we did not kick on (secure bonus point fourth try) in the second half.

“But it has gone now, it does not really matter. We have a big test coming up this weekend.

“We know that in this competition you have got to have the ability to back up performances and that is going to be really difficult to do against Ulster who have not lost for a long time and have an impressive home record in Europe.

“No one is under any illusions as how tough it is going to be,” said McCall.

That victory over Toulouse leaves Saracens top of the pool after Ulster’s game in France against Oyonnax was postponed in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

A victory for the English Premiership side would leave them in a strong position going into the back-to-back games against the French debutantes and Clarke knows the importance of the game this week.

“If you do not win it, then you really put yourself under pressure to go away from home and win the next game,” said Clarke.

“You only have three games at home. You have got to be making the most of those. This is Kingspan, the Ulster support is absolutely fantastic. We want them to be our 16th man. I say that genuinely - it puts the hairs up on the back of my neck as a coach you can only imagine what that does to the player group.

“Because of the nature of the tournament, the nature that is it our first game in Europe this season now, the fact that boys love playing here in front of their home support it is a massive fixture.

“I know the two go hand in hand and we have to give the supporters something to shout about, but the players take huge energy from it whether they have the ball or not.

“We are just hoping that everyone leaves here (Kingspan) who has got an invested interest in Ulster Rugby on Friday night a happy person.”