Rugby Union: Saracens contemplate life without linchpin Lynagh

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The Independent Online
It has not been the best of weeks for Saracens. Seventy-two hours after confessing to operating losses of pounds 2.2m, Watford's rugby kings are being forced to contemplate the unthinkable: Michael Lynagh's early retirement. Chris Hewett reports.

Michael Lynagh, the veteran World Cup-winning outside-half and still among the best three or four playmaking stand-offs in the game, will decide before Christmas whether to call time on his magnificent career.

If the 34-year-old Australian opts for pipe and slippers, his ambitious colleagues at Saracens - joint top of the Premiership - will be faced with a hole far bigger than the one blown in the bank account of their backer, Nigel Wray, by the seven-figure deficit revealed earlier this week.

Lynagh admitted last night that he was considering packing it in at the end of the season. "There comes a time when you have to say thanks very much and go and do something else," he told Sky's Rugby Club.

"I'm tossing up whether or not this will be my last season and I would like to decide before Christmas as to which way I'm going to go. There are people I have to talk to about it; I'm playing well and enjoying it and I feel we're going to have a good season but maybe that's a good time to get out."

Should Lynagh quit in May, he will have played only two of his three contracted seasons. It would leave Sarries with a major personnel problem, especially as they have their sights firmly fixed on a Heineken Cup place next year. Last season, their Heineken challenge started to peter out as soon as Lynagh began to struggle with injury and the European Cup is no place to be without a top-drawer performer in the No 10 shirt.

The fitness problems affecting two other front-line Sarries, Richard Hill and Kyran Bracken, were instrumental in persuading Clive Woodward, the England coach, to delay naming his squad for the Test with Australia tomorrow week and the Emerging England fixture with the All Blacks at Huddersfield three days later.

Both Hill, a prime candidate for the open-side flank, and Bracken, pushing hard at scrum-half, came through comeback matches against Cambridge University on Tuesday, but Woodward wants them watched at Northampton this weekend.

Both players are likely to feature prominently in this season's Five Nations' Championship, a hardy annual that will soon carry more financial clout than ever before as a result of a new sponsorship deal announced yesterday. Lloyds TSB will pay pounds 12m to attach its name to the 1999 and 2000 tournaments and the group has secured an option for 2001 and beyond.

In addition, Lloyds TSB has agreed to back English, Welsh and Irish home matches in this season's competition as well as the two forthcoming England- New Zealand Tests, and will also support a number of World Cup qualifying matches next autumn. Allan Hosie, the chairman of the Five Nations committee, described it as a "ground-breaking deal".

There has been any amount of financial "ground-breaking" in recent months and English rugby, in particular, is smiling from ear to ear. Nike, Allied Dunbar and Tetley Bitter have all signed multi-million pound contracts and only this week, the Cheltenham and Gloucester group agreed yet another seven-figure deal to fund a new competition to provide 20 leading teams with meaningful rugby during the hectic international programme.

Five Nations cash will be shared equally among the participating countries, although the situation is complicated by a unilateral French sponsorship deal that stretches well into 1999.

Argentina are to push for inclusion in the Tri-Nations series, following Italy's success in gaining admission to the Five Nations. The South Americans are concerned that they are becoming the poor relations of southern hemisphere rugby and will lobby influential delegates from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at a conference in Buenos Aires this weekend.