The new year came with a kick in the teeth for Gerald Arasa. He had finished 2002 with a run of four appearances for Saracens, the club he joined from school with dreams of being an England international. Two days into January he was out of a job, the victim of cost-cutting with a smack of desperation. From scrum to scrapheap.
When the end came, it was with all the subtlety of a guillotine. "I took part in a team run on a Thursday morning," the utility back recalled. "I'd played the previous week, when we beat Leeds in the Premiership, so I was looking forward to being involved in the next game, away to Leicester on the Saturday. Towards the end of the session I was called aside and told I wasn't available for selection. On the Friday I received the letter confirming the termination of my contract." Thanks for the last three-and-a-half years, Gerry; for the dedication and the endeavour, and the hard work you put in to get fit again after a shoulder operation. Just close the door behind you on the way out.
Arasa had got wind in early December that Saracens were looking to trim their squad. He was told that those players who had spent most time out with injuries would be first in the firing line. But, he reasoned to himself, the club had paid for six months of rehabilitation on his shoulder, and here he was, in fine fettle on the wing, seeing out the old year with two Parker Pen Cup games against Colomiers off the bench, and starts at home to Sale and Leeds in the Powergen Cup and Premiership respectively.
The bad news was delivered by Saracens' coach, New Zealander Wayne Shelford. "He told me the decisions were coming down from the board," said Arasa. "It felt like a hole had opened up underneath me, and I was dropping in there. It's so bleak. You're thinking whether you're good enough, that maybe you've been lying to yourself. A sportsman has to believe in himself. If you don't, no one else will."
Rugby was not supposed to be like this, but the sport that more than any other used to look after its own has become like any other profession, any other job. And when you are out of a job you sit and wait for the telephone to ring, just as Arasa was doing in his modest north London flat last week. A bright, personable 22-year-old, he was born in Kenya and came to England as a boy with his mother. Aged 15, he switched his attention from football with such immediate aptitude that a contact within the Middlesex Rugby Union arranged for him to pursue his A-levels at Mill Hill School, where the oval-ball game flourishes. He made the England Under-18 squad, and when Saracens offered him an associate professional's contract in 1999 he realised his hobby could be his career.
Quick and strong, at 14st and 5ft 11in, his view was reinforced when he went full-time in 2001. His mother has never seen him play; she would have preferred he went to university. "That's the way with African mums," he smiles. "But I don't want to give up rugby now. I'll get over this, and I'm excited about the future."
Nevertheless Arasa's agent, Mike Strange, is angrily sympathetic with his client. "What Saracens did was pretty disgraceful," said Strange. "What's the bloke supposed to do in January, halfway through the season? We had legal advice that said we could take the club on, but Gerald didn't want that. He's a fine fellow with a lovely personality, and it wouldn't be his style. He's also a tremendous player who has represented England at sevens, but this is the worst possible time to be looking for a club."
The thing that baffles Arasa most is the thinking behind Saracens' decision. The club have released five England-qualified players this season, but none of them in the high-earning bracket of imported stars such as Thomas Castaignède and Tim Horan. Both, incidentally, have had long spells out injured.
Once Arasa had been bought out of his contract, Strange estimated the net saving to the club as no more than a four-figure sum. This week, Saracens announced the signing of a rugby league back, Nathan McAvoy.
Damian Hopley of the Professional Players' Association believes that his members are paying for the financial mismanagement of the Premiership clubs. "The players have entered into contracts in good faith and to then be asked to renegotiate and discount their salaries is bad business," Hopley said.
It is too late for Arasa. He trains alone at a gym and a track in Finsbury Park, but there is no substitute for match practice. He also has a mortgage to pay, and the compensation will not last forever. Occasionally he will call the many good friends he made at Saracens and tease them that he is enjoying the easy life. But the call he would like most in return has not yet come.
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