Saracens stunned as Venter culls 18 players

Rugby Union Correspondent,Chris Hewett
Wednesday 25 February 2009 01:00

Saracens, an object lesson in chronic instability until a brief flirtation with consistency earned them four semi-final appearances in as many competitions in the space of the last two seasons, were back in their familiar state of flux yesterday after a brutal culling of the first-team squad. Some 18 players, including some of the biggest names at the club – the All Black second-row forward Chris Jack and the leading points scorer Glen Jackson among them – have been told their services will not be required next season. There was no confirmation of numbers or identities from the club, whose spokesman, Mike Hartwell, said only that a series of private meetings had taken place on Monday, the details of which would not be divulged.

But it is known that Brendan Venter, the World Cup-winning Springbok centre who will take over the coaching this summer, told the best part of half the Premiership personnel that they would be surplus to requirements under his regime, with those still under contract being paid up in full.

Jack, one of the outstanding locks of his generation, and Jackson, the leading scorer in this season's Premiership, are not the only front-line victims of the clear-out. The Pacific Islanders Kameli Ratuvou and Census Johnston were also thought to be among the unfortunates, along with the likes of the prop Nick Lloyd and the lock Hugh Vyvyan. Kris Chesney, a long-serving forward, has already signed for the French club Toulon.

Perhaps most upsetting from the perspective of Saracens supporters was the uncertainty surrounding the position of Kevin Sorrell after 14 years with the club. The centre has frequently been described as Saracens' "heartbeat". Last month, the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones confirmed he would be quitting as director of rugby at the end of the season, two years earlier than planned. It was presented by Saracens as a family-driven decision, but it was clear that Jones and his employers had disagreed strongly over the future direction of the club.

These latest developments say all that needs saying about his reasons for leaving. Jones' announcement followed hard on the heels of the departure of his fellow Australian and close colleague Mark Sinderberry, replaced as chief executive by Edward Griffiths, who, like Venter, has strong Springbok links. As the club is now owned by a spectacularly wealthy South African business consortium, many Saracens supporters fear a fundamental change in their club's make-up – especially in light of repeated rumours of a move from Watford to Fulham and a possible ground-share at Craven Cottage.

The South African population in that corner of the capital is very substantial indeed. While the best of Saracens' outstanding crop of youngsters – the full-back Alex Goode, the wing Noah Cato, the centre Adam Powell, the prop Tom Mercey, the flanker Andy Saull – are expected to be retained, they are likely to find themselves playing alongside a good number of South Africans next term. The consortium behind the buy-out of the club, South African Investments Ltd, also owns two of the biggest-hitting teams in Springbok provincial rugby, the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls and the Cape Town-based Western Province. Already, a couple of the current Bokke glitterati – the Bulls' wing Bryan Habana and the Western Province back-rower Schalk Burger – have been mentioned as possible short-term recruits for Saracens.

Unsurprisingly, there was a good deal of discontent among the players yesterday. They did not take kindly to the future coach ripping through the squad while the existing coach was beginning preparations for a tough Premiership game with Sale this weekend. Saracens have a difficult run-in, with home-and-away fixtures against Bath and Leicester still on the list. If, with morale at rock bottom, they win more than they lose in the remaining weeks of the season, it will be a minor miracle.

There was no suggestion yesterday that Saracens' captain, Steve Borthwick, would be leaving the club. There again, Borthwick has enough on his plate with England matters ahead of this weekend's fiendishly difficult Six Nations trip to Ireland. Martin Johnson, the manager, was due to name his side today, with the lion's share of attention focused on the outside-half position. Andy Goode, who contributed half a dozen points to Brive's narrow victory over Biarritz in the French Top 14 tournament on Saturday, has started both championship games to date, but is under pressure from the Leicester stand-off Toby Flood, who was held back from Premiership duty last weekend. Danny Cipriani of Wasps is also dancing round the edges of the squad.

Ireland, much more settled, will keep faith with the players who did a comprehensive job on Italy in the previous round of matches. Paddy Wallace, the Ulster midfielder, has recovered from a nasty eye wound suffered in Rome and keeps his place ahead of the more experienced Gordon D'Arcy.

Ireland (v England, Croke Park, Saturday, 5.30pm): R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester).

Services not required: Top guns given the chop

Kameli Ratuvou A powerhouse wing from Fiji who shone in last season's narrow Heineken Cup semi-final defeat by Munster.

Glen Jackson An England-qualified New Zealander who has proved one of the most reliable goalkickers in the Premiership.

Census Johnston The high-earning prop from Samoa whose career in English club rugby has blossomed under Eddie Jones.

Chris Jack The All Black lock joined after the 2007 World Cup as a big-name signing in the tradition of Lynagh and Sella.

Michael Owen The former Wales No 8 and captain was signed last summer but has missed much of the campaign through injury.

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