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Gallagher column: Saracens embodied the old pioneering spirit

SO Saracens caved in and did the decent thing to preserve the integrity of this season’s Premiership. Not fighting that 35-point deduction and huge fine was their only sensible course of action, as much for their own mental state as for the benefit of the league.

An appeal would have hung over Saracens for months and the very slim chance of a legal challenge succeeding and offering a lifeline would have detracted from the monumental effort now needed for the club to extract itself from the mire. They broke the rules and there is a cost to pay.

For the record I expect an angry Saracens to comfortably avoid relegation, but Europe will be a step too far. As for England, of course their star men must and will play in the Six Nations.

Now the mud throwing has died down and people are thinking straight again it’s worth looking into the deeper issues here and I suspect that history might be kinder to Saracens.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, their innovative co-investor system will undoubtedly become commonplace in Rugby Union, a very workable financial model that can help monetarise our sport.

Predictably it was Saracens and Nigel Wray that recognised this first and their main sin has been an inexplicable carelessness – recklessness – in not getting some tacit approval from Premiership Rugby as they moved forward with their plans.

There is, however, a huge irony in this, notably that of all the club owners Wray always used to be the high priest of the American franchise system, the closed league where all the teams share the profits, there is no relegation and the league is remorselessly branded as one corporate entity. I wonder if he still holds that view?

My problem with this approach is that the penalties for being absolutely bloody useless, on and off the field, are minimal. In the NBA you can win, say 13 games in an 84-game regular season, and there is no comeback. You still cash in and indeed get the first pick of college stars at the draft. Horrible.

Equality and fraternity seems the mantra for such leagues or those organisations who prefer to move forward as a homogenous lump. But whatever happened to liberty? What about the freedom to boldly experiment and improve – and indeed the freedom to occasionally crash and fail.

For years now Saracens have been the best coached team in Europe and one of the few clubs with a clear vision for the future and the balls to make big decisions and aim high. They are willing to go out there and find backers, come up with new schemes, take a risk. But the Premiership is not comfortable with those who want to fly and soar.

Last season the fourth placed team – Northampton – finished 30 points behind Exeter which rather gives a lie to the claim about the Premiership being the most competitive league in the world. Yes, there are always five or six teams in mid-table who are nip and tuck but don’t be deceived, that is significantly different from it being a rip-roaring dog-eat-dog cutting edge league.

That effectively reduces the Premiership to a uniform and controllable average and on top of all that many within the Premiership still want relegation abolished to further lessen the jeopardy. With all due respect gents, some years it’s only the fight against relegation that offers any real frisson for much of the regular season.

Premiership Rugby has become safe and conservative – with a small ‘c’ I must emphasise as we build towards an election!

At the dawn of professionalism free market forces kicked in violently and there were casualties. Orrell, West Hartlepool, London Scottish and Richmond come immediately to mind although happily the last two quickly found their feet in the lower leagues and have now probably risen to the height of their current aspirations.

A natural process of evolution was taking place but the suits suddenly became very nervous. Protecting the status quo and defining what is normal has suddenly become the Holy Grail when, in fact, what club rugby in England badly needs right now is another short sharp dose of the gloves-off pioneering spirit that marked the birth of the professional game.

Clubs like Saracens must be allowed to fly and reach their full potential, not have their wings clipped. And if set free they will drag others with them. Every sport needs it galacticos, they raise the tone and establish new norms.


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