Poor old Saracens. No sooner have they made their peace with the Twickenham grandees they upset with such astonishing regularity last season than they find themselves on the wrong side of authority at European level. Why? Because Steve Borthwick, the recently deposed England captain and one of the more sober members of the rugby-playing fraternity, somehow felt able to resist the lure of the official Heineken Cup launch in favour of a day at the Munich beer festival.
Borthwick's no-show in Cardiff yesterday was quite a talking point, and by the end of the function, the European Rugby Cup chief executive Derek McGrath was giving voice to his displeasure: "It's disappointing when people don't attend. Clubs participating in this competition know the expectations we have of them: we don't make big demands, but the agreement is that they fulfil their obligations when we notify them of particular events. This matter will be raised at our next board meeting in November. If a sanction is considered appropriate, it will be a financial one."
According to Saracens sources, the players' trip to Germany was organised months ago, well ahead of confirmation of the tournament launch. Borthwick, now in his third season as club captain and the very opposite of a stereotypical rugby beer-swiller, was returning to England last night, with the rest of the squad, and all were expected to train in St Albans today in preparation for this weekend's Premiership meeting with Leicester.
Brendan Venter, the Saracens director of rugby, was reluctant to discuss the issue, although he would be the last person on earth to begrudge his man a day on the sauce, given Borthwick's brutal treatment by the England coaches in recent weeks. Instead, he raised serious concerns over the way Heineken Cup matches will be refereed, particularly around the tackle area, when the competition begins with fixtures in Belfast, Glasgow and Northampton a week on Friday.
"The Premiership, the Top 14 in France, the Magners League ... they're all refereed differently," he said. "The International Rugby Board has sent directives to everyone, telling them how it wants to see the game controlled ahead of next year's World Cup, and I based my whole pre-season programme around those directives. We've made a lot of progress in England and we operate in a brilliant environment, but even in the Premiership we struggle for consistency. When I watch French rugby on the television, the directives are not being followed. Everyone is so excited about this Heineken Cup tournament, but we have this one massive variable."
McGrath acknowledged that concerns had been raised – not only by the coaching contingent from the Premiership, but by French clubs worried that random interpretations might undermine their own chances. "We've asked Donal Courtney [the former international referee from Ireland] to oversee things this season, and while it is a work in progress, we believe there will be a greater consistency of approach," he said. "We have better data now, better ways of measuring these things, and as far as we are concerned, the IRB directives will be strictly applied."
Meanwhile, the Barbarians have named the disaffected Wales centre Gavin Henson in their initial squad for the match with the Springboks at Twickenham in early December. Henson has not set foot on a pitch for 18 months and will spend the next few weeks in a television studio, doing the cha-cha-cha with the likes of Ann Widdecombe. The South Africans must be quaking in their boots.Reuse content