Saracens recruit Marshall to plug gap

Jones turns to former All Black great to solve scrum-half shortage
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The Independent Online

Justin Marshall, one of the outstanding scrum-halves of his generation, has rummaged around in most corners of the European club game since calling time on his All Black career after the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand: there was a spell in the Guinness Premiership with Leeds and a Magners League stint with Ospreys, followed by a move across the Channel for some Top 14 action in Montpellier. Now, he is back in top-flight English rugby with Saracens, the club who landed the first big-name southern hemisphere signing, Michael Lynagh, back in 1995, the year the sport went professional.

Eddie Jones, the Watford-based club's director of rugby, acted quickly to secure the most decorated half-back in the annals of the All Black game after his principal No 9, the South African import Neil de Kock, suffered a broken arm during last weekend's league victory over Bristol. "We have some strength in the position with Moses Rauluni, who is doing a tremendous job for us," Jones said, "but given the importance of the No 9 role in Premiership rugby, I felt we needed another international-class performer on board. It's happened quickly, and I'm delighted to be welcoming someone of Justin's calibre to the club."

Marshall, capped more than 80 times by New Zealand between 1995 and 2005 and captain of the Test side in 1997, also won five Super 12 titles with the Crusaders after moving to Canterbury from his native Southland. A public falling-out with the coaching regime at Montpellier alerted Jones to his potential availability, and the 35-year-old has been signed on a short-term contract taking him to the end of the season.

By that time, there should be some decision on the shape of the 2009-10 campaign following the move by the club owners and shareholders to expand the Premiership fixture list by five matches to 27 in an effort to stave off the worst ravages of the economic downturn. There again, nothing is ever straightforward in the Byzantine world of rugby politics, and the Rugby Football Union, somewhat alarmed by the radicalism of the clubs' proposals, is more than capable of throwing a spanner in the works.

The governing body remains fully behind a revamped version of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which ends in its present form with this season's final in mid-April. The clubs, on the other hand, want to free up those weekends for more Premiership fixtures. "We hope the RFU engages with us on this, because we're keen to work our way through the next couple of seasons without cutting squad numbers and putting players out of a job," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby. The most likely scenario, however, is a full-on row between the two sides when they meet next week.

Unsurprisingly, the players know where they stand. "We've been in consultation with Premier Rugby for weeks now, and given the amount of talk about possible revisions of salary cap levels and reductions in squad sizes, we're satisfied with the general thrust of the owners' proposals," said David Barnes, the Bath prop who chairs the Professional Rugby Players' Association. "All clubs have their own economic models, and the good thing about the outcome of these talks is that each club will be able to continue to manage itself as it thinks fit, without swingeing cuts cross the board. We like to think we're a sensible people who understand the pressure points created by the downturn. The important thing is to ensure rugby stays in good shape over the long term."

It is certainly in good shape on the European front if interest in tonight's big Heineken Cup game between Munster and Sale in Limerick is any guide. Some 3,000 Sale supporters are making the trip to Thomond Park – an unprecedented volume of travelling support for the ambitious northern club – and, according to their director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, they will see their team in "do or die" mood.

"We have to win because there will be no runner-up qualifier for the knockout stage from this pool," said the Frenchman, who has again decided to leave the England back Mathew Tait on the bench, along with the Test prop Andrew Sheridan. "We will play with all our heart."


Number of caps for the All Blacks won by scrum-half Justin Marshall from 1985 to 2005.