Mark Evans, one of the central figures in Saracens' rise from enthusiastic small-timers to ultra-professional heavy hitters, has resigned from his post as director of corporate development and will leave the Watford-based club within the next three weeks. FranÃ§ois Pienaar, the former Springbok captain who intends to retire from playing at the end of the season, is expected to take on a wide-ranging managerial role, combining chief executive and coaching duties.
Evans' departure after 20 years of service reinforces the strong impression that all is not well at Vicarage Road. Saracens began the season as favourites to take the Allied Dunbar Premiership title, but have under-performed on all fronts: league, knock-out cup and Heineken Cup. Many of their defeats have been narrow, and they have been cut to the quick by injuries to Dan Luger, Kyran Bracken, Roberto Grau and Danny Grewcock. But as one insider put it yesterday: "It's simply not the club it once was; the atmosphere has changed, the spirit has worsened. It is not a happy ship."
One of the best talent-spotters in English rugby and highly rated within the coaching fraternity, Evans will be sorely missed by the likes of Tony Diprose, Richard Hill and other committed Saracens who have stuck by the club through thick and thin. Furthermore, his decision to quit will be mourned by gifted youngsters such as David Flatman, the England A prop discovered by Evans while playing in a low-profile schools match in London's East End.
Pienaar relieved Evans of the coaching reins within months of arriving at the club, the latter adopting a more generalised brief as director of rugby.
Despite immediate achievement on an unprecedented level - Saracens won the Tetley's Bitter Cup in 1998 and finished a close second to Newcastle in the Premiership - the new arrangement failed to last. Evans accepted a corporate development role that distanced him from the rugby arm of the operation, but was clearly not willing to remain marginalised indefinitely.
It seems certain that Evans, who abandoned a successful teaching career to go full-time with Saracens, will stay in the top-level game: his experience as a front-line coach, a director of rugby and a business-suited commercial negotiator with first-hand knowledge of the politics of the sport marks him out as obvious managerial material. Saracens, meanwhile, must explain to their supporters why the back-room casualty list has grown so long. In less than four seasons, Evans has seen Rob Cunningham, Mike Smith, Peter Deakin and Paul Turner precede him through the exit door.
Another high-profile figure, the former England assistant coach Les Cusworth, was facing an uncertain future yesterday after being relieved of his coaching duties at Worcester, the ambitious Premiership Two club.
Cusworth, the director of rugby at Sixways, remains on the payroll, but there now appears to be little left for him in the West Midlands, especially as Geoff Cooke, who guided England to two Grand Slams and a World Cup final in the early 1990s, has been given control of team affairs until the end of the season.
Cusworth was in at the start of a Worcester revolution financed by Cecil Duckworth's millions, but his star has been in the descendent since Cooke arrived as chief executive. Worcester's fading chances of winning the Premiership Two title and giving themselves a shot of promotion to the top flight were comprehensively blown out of the water by Rotherham last weekend, the Yorkshiremen winning 42-0. That result seems to have concentrated Duckworth's thinking. "Mr Duckworth believes that a change of direction is necessary to try to lift the team for its remaining matches," said a club spokesman in a prepared statement yesterday.
Worcester are now six points adrift of Rotherham and appear to have given up the ghost. Several experienced players have left Sixways on loan - Dave Sims, the former Gloucester and England lock, is playing out the campaign at Bedford, for instance - and with the proposed Premiership franchises postponed for at least a year, it is clear that Duckworth can expect no immediate return on his seven-figure investment. Money still talks in rugby, but it is not always entirely persuasive.
A few miles down the M5 at Gloucester, Phil Vickery was feeling a little happier with life yesterday. England's tight-head prop was sent off for dangerous play during the defeat by Bath at Kingsholm last weekend, and presumed he would miss a series of big games over the coming weeks, not least the fixtures with Leicester and Wasps. However, the Rugby Football Union has decided to delay his disciplinary hearing until 16 May, which leaves him available for all but the last match of the season at London Irish.