Victims of their own success, in essence, Saracens have been left with quite the conundrum. Sophie’s choice has metamorphosed into Saracens’ choice: Will it be Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje who remains in north London as the club’s marquee player?
How the saga plays out will be fascinating. In an ideal world, Saracens would retain both of their superstars, but the reports from recent days make that seem exceptionally unlikely. Mark McCall, Saracens’ decorated director of rugby, has had the luxury of having both players excluded from the cap. By the time their current contracts end, however, only one player will be allowed to be excluded. That leaves one facing a significant pay cut to remain a Saracen, with Itoje the likelier of the two to miss out.
It is a tight, tough call. Of course, both parties would like to remain at the club to which they have given – and has given them – so much. They are both emblems of Saracens’ dynasty, a period of domestic and European domination. McCall’s predicament is invidious but surely the correct call has been made.
Farrell is Saracens’ heartbeat, idolised by his team-mates and club insiders when the exterior noise might not match. McCall is often the first to publicly praise his captain’s performances in post-match media duties. Everything at the club, who have experienced bucket loads of success, revolves around him. Itoje is, of course, as phenomenal a talent as anyone in the Premiership but Saracens clearly believe that Farrell’s aura sets him apart. Given the reluctance of both Saracens and England to make Itoje captain, those intangible benefits surely do make Farrell a more valuable commodity.
It is Farrell’s leadership that impresses McCall the most
“The team dragged us out of a sticky period, Owen was incredible today, how he played, how he led,” were the words of McCall after one Premiership victory last season – although he regularly waxes lyrical of his captain. One gets the feeling, in those words, that the final clause is the most apposite: how he led. That is not to say that Itoje cannot or will not lead, but clearly it is what Farrell brings to Saracens outside of the fly-half jersey – qualities which have been exalted by England coach Steve Borthwick, too – which is what impresses and interests McCall the most.
It is not a situation that Saracens nor the Premiership wish to find themselves in, as explained by Telegraph Sport columnist Brian Moore, but it is the reality of life in a cash-strapped league. If English rugby were a fully functioning, rational beast, this issue would be moot. The Premiership – and the state of rugby in this country – simply should not be in a situation where one of its biggest names is forced out of the league for reasons which are, plainly, out of his control.
Of course, there will be those who believe that Itoje should be content with a pay cut, or who accuse him of greed, but he is a player demanding only what he is worth.
The conundrum could represent a more existential problem for English rugby, which has already seen a plethora of internationals cross the Channel, sacrificing their ambitions with the national team for greater job security in a thriving league. If Itoje departs, and the Rugby Football Union remains adamant that it will not pick overseas players, then where does that leave the Premiership and its prestige?
The league’s executives have begun admirably rebuilding the league’s image and appeal after its worst season in living memory, but the departure of one of its superstars owing to the Premiership’s own regulations would be a hammer blow.
Whether Itoje does leave remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however; in Saracens’ choice, McCall was never going to let his heartbeat go.