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Loose Pass: Changing of the guard and uncertainty –

Sep 30th, 2020

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Saracens future, Exeter Chiefs present, and the game in the balance once more

Not with a bang, but a whimper. Saracens time, already borrowed, came to an end on Saturday in an eerie, echoey arena in Paris. It is deeply uncertain how or when next their time will come. The Championship to where they had been consigned is now on hold as the second wave of coronavirus washes over England. The European Cup will not have a Saracens team in it for two years at least. A few cosmetic games in the Premiership remain, but for the team of the past decade, there is nothing left.

This writer indeed, this column has never professed any deep-rooted love for the club. They dont play particularly exhilarating rugby and have a very insular and exclusive air. The current side is an improvement on some past incarnations, but when so many of the good aspects of club and team-building that Saracens epitomised are founded on blatant cheating (and lest we forget, the rumours had rumbled for a long time before the breaches were finally revealed), none of it seems real enough to even begrudgingly admire either. We do believe Saracens should be stripped of the titles they won in seasons where their transgressions were proven and the punishment of forced relegation absolutely fits the crime.

Yet tarring all the players with that same cheating brush is invidious, and a large number of this generation are admirably good rugby players and blokes. Jamie George, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt to name but three (of many), do not deserve to be consigned to a sort of moral room 101 just because their paymasters broke the rules.

Maro Itojes pay packet was one of the ones most often-cited as an example of the clubs transgressions, yet hes been the standout player of the past five years and has been unswervingly loyal since he joined his first professional club. An argument has been advanced in this column when Kyle Sinckler was squeezed out to Bristol by wage constraints that one-club men for their professional careers have a far more significant case for being marquee exemptions to the salary cap than someone imported from abroad. Saracens cheated by cutting Itojes pay deal (among others), but there is a moral argument to it, which would not have been true had it been Liam Williams salary that caused the breach, for example.

Many a player of Itojes ilk is now staring into an abyss, caught between their loyalty to the club, the uncertainty of the Championships existence and the financial squeezes created by coronavirus which mean loans to other teams are going to be much harder. Itoje may well end up in France rumours still abound that his next club game will be in the blue and white of Racing 92 but where can the others go?

A solution has been suggested in some circles that should the Championship fall foul of Covid-19 completely, Saracens could be invited to participate in a 13-team ring-fenced Premiership in order to save them from extinction. An extraordinary solution certainly, but these are extraordinary times. Despite our support for the mandatory relegation initially, we would support this, albeit with the proviso that Saracens start the season with a points deduction hefty enough to ensure that qualification for Europe would be an impossibility.

The club needs to be punished, but not extinguished, while the players should not carry so much of the weight in this most bizarre period of the sports history.

When salarygate broke, the most vociferous howls from the wolves at Saracens door came from Sandy Park, with Exeter Chairman Tony Rowe succinct in his view that Sarries should be stripped of their ill-gotten gains.

Mr. Rowe must be ear-to-ear now, for while Saracens weigh up the future and their past mistakes, Exeter are all about the present. A home semi-final is all but secure in the Premiership, and while Marseille would possibly not be a great place for a team from Paris to visit right now, the European Cup being played at Ashton Gate presents a significant upgrade in terms of logistical advantage for Rob Baxters side.

By the looks of things, they may have a fitness advantage anyway. Toulouse have played some breathtaking rugby in spurts this season, but they have also shown a knack for being susceptible to relentless tempo. Clermont showed it in the opening fixture of the Top 14 before taking their foot off the gas and Exeter exposed it on Saturday as well. That they had played four or five more competitive games since project restart was not lost on the strategic input of an Exeter coaching staff that leaves no stone unturned.

Racing endured better against Saracens much slower game but still needed a moment of magic to swing the tie their way. Itll take more than a moment against Englands new dynastic side.

When the two meet, it will be just over a decade since Exeters first tottering steps in the Premiership and in Europe. As Saracens, dominant force in England and Europe for the better part of those 10 years, exit in disgrace, it would make the beers in Exeter taste very sweet indeed were they to announce their ascension to the throne with an English and European double.

The signs had been so promising, but rugby, along with so many other aspects of society, is back in fragility.

Australia has lost its flagship sponsor of 30 years. New Zealand are furious that a schedule glitch (to put it politely) means their players will probably be quarantined for Christmas. Some might well wonder why theyd bother. South Africas internationals played their first competitive rugby for six months at the weekend, the Boks are playing in the Rugby Championship in a few weeks time. The same goes for Argentina, minus the competitive rugby; hardly an ideal situation for any of them.

All rugby in the UK and Ireland is imperilled financially as elite clubs face the prospect of no fans and sub-elite clubs face the prospect of further months with no games. Wasps CEO Stephen Vaughan reckoned the club would be losing half a million pounds a month if fans dont come back soon, a terrifying prospect. Meanwhile the RFU is unlikely to be able to fund anything like what it used to before at grass roots level the same goes for the other home unions.

In France, the league is fighting with its President again while rugby below the top two divisions is soldering gamely on but faces a quagmire of fixtures later in the year if it is to catch up. Some clubs may simply not bother.

Exeter may well end up Kings of Europe in three weeks time, but what Europe, in rugby terms, will look like by then is anyones guess.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan

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Loose Pass: Changing of the guard and uncertainty -

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