Saracens chief McCall eyes 'daunting season' ahead

Pirate IRWIN
Former All Black star Charles Piutau could make Premiership newboys Bristol Bears the surprise package of the season

Saracens may have regained their Premiership crown but director of rugby Mark McCall foresees the battle to retain it being tougher than it has ever been this season.

The 51-year-old Northern Irishman has guided the club to two European titles as well as four Premiership crowns since he arrived in the 2010/11 campaign.

McCall, who played 13 Tests for Ireland before injury ended his career aged 31, admitted to being just a little nervous with his side due to begin their campaign against the surprise packages of last season Newcastle Falcons a week on Sunday.

"It felt like a really complicated season, the last one, but for me this is going to be the most competitive one ever," he said at the Premiership launch at Twickenham on Thursday.

"There are world class coaches and really exciting signings in all the clubs. We are all excited but nervous at the same time.

"It is going to be an exciting season but also a daunting season."

McCall, whose side showed great character bouncing back after a seven-match losing streak in all competitions mid-season to beat the 2017 champions Exeter in the Premiership final, said his largely unchanged squad had not lost their ambition.

"We know what we have to try and improve and we have been clear with the players how we can improve," he said.

"We have a settled group and sometimes that can be a bad thing because it can breed over-confidence and they lose their drive.

"However, my squad are largely aged 26-27 and hungry to get better and with the extra attraction of the World Cup next year. They can kick on."

- 'The Bristol bus is going' -

McCall, though, is mindful of the blip his side suffered last season,

"The challenge is to get off to a good start," he said.

"Then when you have some momentum to your season take advantage of that stay calm and don't see ghosts that aren't there.

"We went through all that last season and there are lessons to be learnt."

While Saracens and Wasps, and more recently Exeter, have been singled out as likely championship contenders, it is usually the newly-promoted side that is ear-marked for an immediate return to the second tier.

However, this is not the case for Bristol Bears who backed by locally-born billionaire Steve Lansdown have invested in some stellar signings.

The most noteworthy is former All Black back Charles Piutau, although the likes of Wallaby legend George Smith and former Ireland fly-half Ian Madigan are also in the squad.

All reasons for their director of rugby, Samoan icon Pat Lam to be confident he did the right thing in joining them and leaving Irish province Connacht after he had guided traditionally the weakest province in Irish rugby to a stunning Celtic League trophy in 2016.

"When I was asked to come first thing I wanted to know was what do you want to achieve," he said.

"Both Steve Lansdown and Chris Booy (the chairman) said 'inspire the community' and that resonated with me as for me rugby is about more than the game."

Lam, who won the Premiership as a player with Newcastle and then when at Northampton the 2000 European Cup, said he and his bosses share three goals.

"To become a (European) Champions Cup team, have Bristol players playing for England as there are none at the moment and to have young Bristolians want to play for us and not leave for our neighbours as they have been doing.

"We made clear where we want to go and that is the way the Bristol bus is going and we have to make sure the whole organisation goes the same way."