Rugby started off this week hitting the headlines for all the right reasons. But sadly, the last few days has seen the oval-ball sport once again dragged through the gutter because of Saracens and the salary cap, writes Gareth Davies.
Although the reigning champions’ financial mismanagement had abated rather than disappeared totally, amidst all the recent negativity, there was a positive story on Wednesday that reminded everyone what makes rugby truly brilliant.
The one person who made it possible has come to the fore by plying his trade here in the West Country. Welshman Louis-Rees-Zammit, Gloucester’s 18-year-old wing sensation, has risen to prominence due to his try scoring feats which has seen numerous records broken and a Premiership Player of the Month award too.
With such a meteoric ascent from the Kingsholm academy to becoming a darling of the Shed, it was obvious that Rees-Zammit would force himself into the international reckoning. Unsurprisingly, Rees-Zammit was called up for Wales’ Six Nations defence which begins in Cardiff against Italy on February 1.
But this clamour for new Wales head coach Wayne Pivac to pick his country’s great hope wasn’t just hype created by supporters or column inches like these.
No, this kid absolutely looks the real deal and whilst some teenagers fail to live up to the hype – Matthew Tait with England is a prime example, while George North, a Welsh winger whose footsteps Rees-Zammit will be looking to emulate, is a case of a player who did fulfil his undoubted promise.
Whilst his talent on the field is unquestionable, perhaps Rees-Zammit’s biggest challenge will be dealing with the fact he has gone from relative obscurity to be a household name in a short space of time.
However, he only needs to look across the dressing room at Kingsholm to a player that went through similar in Danny Cipriani. Unfortunately for Cipriani, England’s most gifted playmaker of his generation, he never displayed his unquestionable talents on the biggest stage for a multitude of well-documented reasons.
Despite Cipriani probably knowing deep down that despite carving out a good career and living from rugby, it could have been so much better.
Now coming into the twilight years of his career, Cipriani has matured and is better as a person for his experiences, however chastising they have been.
The way he spoke so openly and honestly about his England rejection for last year’s World Cup in Japan was something I, nor anyone else present in his company during a Premiership Rugby media day last September expected.
Cipriani spoke about pressures of modern-day rugby and more importantly for Rees-Zammit, how at 32, he could help others stay on the right path.
“My focus is how I can be a good example for youngsters and how I can do that,” Cipriani mused. “I have made mistakes and my mistakes are a little bit more public than others, but do I keep trying to learn and move forward? Yes I do.”
With a familiar face to call on for advice in his own club dressing room, Rees-Zammit still has to prove himself on the international stage. That said, with every previous hurdle safely navigated so far, it would be no surprise if the step from club to national star was achieved seamlessly.
This brilliant story of a relative nobody becoming a somebody sees the dictum of age being no barrier in sport – and more specifically rugby – once again been proved correct by Rees-Zammit. This was summed up perfectly by former Welsh dual-code star Jonathan Davies last week who said: ‘If you are good enough, you are old enough and he (Rees-Zammit) is good enough.’
With Rees-Zammit, Gloucester and the Six Nations taking centre stage this week and a decisive European weekend on the horizon, rugby on these shores was very much on the front foot.
Then, late on Thursday, through Friday and into Saturday, all hell broke loose again as Saracens and rugby was consigned back into a cesspit full of scandal. After Exeter defeated La Rochelle, Premiership Rugby released a statement confirming that the most successful club side ever seen on these shores, that was constructed illegally, by failing to adhere to the salary cap, will play Championship rugby next season.
After it was ruled that the London side had overspent for the past three seasons, they were punished accordingly back in November.
With Exeter their most vocal and obvious critics, Sandy Park chief executive Tony Rowe called for Saracens to be relegated, it now appears his wish has been granted.
After being quite publicly and justifiably hung out to dry, Saracens were told they must get their house in order for this season and cut a reported £2million off a bloated wage bill.
However, that has, it seems, proved easier said than done.
Trying to fall under the cap mid-season is a virtually impossible task as other, law-abiding clubs, have probably spent up to the cap meaning they have no room for additions.
With a fire-sale not an option, nor severance as any payment counts towards the cap, while players moving overseas will damage international chances – especially for Saracens’ England contention.
Premiership Rugby and the other 12 stakeholder clubs were growing impatient and then, in a board meeting last week, their tolerance ran out. Saracens were told to open their books and hand back their titles won illegally or accept another points deduction, rendering them a Championship side next season. They have almost certainly chosen the latter.
There followed more fall out and for rugby, the worse is yet to come. The flagrant state of Saracens’ dishonesty has damaged the integrity of not only the club itself, but the game as a whole.
Initially, some defended Saracens and said this was something of a witch-hunt due to their on-field success and continual production of English rugby superstars.
Those players such as national captain Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly and Jamie George are now left with an uncertain future.
First and foremost, this whole sorry mess will have a detrimental effect on England’s upcoming Six Nations campaign and beyond.
How can players potentially plying their trade in the Championship at Hartpury or Doncaster next season prepare themselves for the international stage?
That World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand in October 2019 might be a zenith England fail to match for a very long time if their best are left playing in a tier two competition, or consigned to the scrap-heap because of their current employers’ malpractice.
No matter how good Saracens have been for English rugby previously, the team that plays in black have left a similarly indelible mark next to English rugby which will take years to shift.