Saracens used to be such a basket case of a club when it came to recruitment policy – anything fewer than 20 changes in personnel during a close season was a triumph of continuity – that successive coaches were widely suspected of taking the blind man's buff approach to selection, on the grounds that no one knew for sure who was still on the payroll. Now, the Premiership title contenders have adopted the "heads-or-tails" system, but if this seems every bit as unscientific, there is method in the madness.
Mark McCall, Andy Farrell, the "remote controller" Brendan Venter and the rest of the back-room staff are so reluctant to choose between the scrum-halves Neil de Kock and Richard Wigglesworth ahead of this weekend's final with Leicester at Twickenham – a repeat of last season's showpiece – that they have given the two men permission to sort it themselves. The favoured method? An old-fashioned toss of the coin.
"We're not doing this from one to 15 – just in the No 9 position," said McCall, who replaced Venter as director of rugby when the South African returned to Cape Town for family reasons midway through the campaign. "We've made a lot of our selections on rotation through the season, but that naturally narrows down when we reach this point of a campaign. When it comes to scrum-half, we're privileged to have two outstanding players of very similar style; indeed, we recruited Richard this time last year because he offers the same things we get from Neil. They're happy to do it this way, in the knowledge that whatever happens, one will replace the other after 50 minutes. It's unusual, yes, but under the circumstances I think it's entirely sensible."
Both half-backs are full internationals. De Kock, a Capetonian, won 10 Springbok caps before heading to the Premiership a little under five years ago while Wigglesworth, a native of Blackpool, made five appearances for England in 2008. "We're on the same team and get along really well," said the former. "We thought this was the simplest way, and Mark agreed," remarked the latter. As for the outcome of the coin flip, neither man appeared to give a toss.
When a team is 80 minutes away from a first championship title having not lost since the middle of January – Saracens are on a 12-match winning streak, the last 10 of them Premiership victories – they have every reason to feel generous. Asked yesterday whether the club had any problems with the Rugby Football Union's decision not to inflict a match-day ban on Leicester's Richard Cockerill for letting his emotions get the better of him in a crowded place, in stark contrast to their brutal treatment of Venter a year ago, the club's chief executive, Edward Griffiths, was wholly at ease with the situation.
He could not resist throwing one small dart, however. "When Brendan was being threatened with punishment last May, we asked Leicester if they would write a letter in support of him, on the grounds that the occasion would be diminished without both coaches being present," he said. "They felt unable to do so. Had the roles been reversed, we would certainly have written such a letter." Ouch.
Meanwhile, one of Welsh rugby's more troubled souls – the celebrity centre Gavin Henson – has lost his place in the Toulon squad, having failed to secure a contract extension on the Côte d'Azur. However, officials of the French club insisted their decision had little to do with the midfielder's recent disciplinary issues and plenty to do with his likely return to international rugby in time for the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand.
"We don't want to blame anyone, but for next season we hope team spirit will be a priority," said Toulon's principal investor Mourad Boudjellal, referring to Henson's recent suspension for fighting with colleagues after criticising senior members of the side. But according to the team manager Tom Whitford, the reasoning behind Henson's release was disappointingly mundane. "We haven't qualified for Europe, our budget will be restricted and we'd rather not take the risk of losing him to the World Cup for three or four months," he explained.Reuse content