The business end of the rugby season is now upon us and, right on cue, the Harlequins have just slipped from fourth position in the Premiership to fifth, defeated away at Gloucester last weekend.
A fair assumption being that Northampton Saints and ‘Saffra-cens’ – a common reference to their preponderance of South African involvement – are already out of sight, this means it’s now a case of ‘three into two won’t go’ for Bath, Leicester Tigers and ourselves as regards the two junior play-off places.
There’s an old joke that goes “How do you make a small fortune in pig farming?”
The answer – “Simple – you wait until you have a large fortune and then go into pig farming …”
Professional club rugby union is a similar case in point. Folklore has it that that Nigel Wray has sunk in excess of £25 million of his own money into Saracens. The last time I saw a financial ‘survey of viability’ in The Rugby Paper, there wasn’t a single club in the Premiership making a profit. The nearest is Leicester Tigers, which has a ground capacity of about 24,000. Most other Premiership clubs have capacities of 15,000 and – week in, week out – attract home crowds of less than 10,000.
The Premiership divides into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
By general consent, Saracens, Leicester and Bath are the league’s Big Spenders. Nobody else knows how they manage to buy and then keep the number of marquee-name players that they are always in the market for … and yet still remain within the stated salary cap (designed to ensure some degree of parity) to which we are all supposedly subject.
Bath is the latest to join that Big Spender group, courtesy of their latest owner, Bruce Craig, who made his money in pharmaceuticals.
Having spent big again last summer, Bath – tipped to do well – came out of the blocks fast and, albeit with the occasional hiccup, have managed to keep the momentum going.
Always badly depleted by the annual international demands, Leicester are used to having to make a late run for the play-offs … and usually manage it.
Regular readers of this column will be all too aware that the Quins machine has barely spluttered into life this term.
We’re playing like a mid-table club – i.e. losing tight games to the top clubs and struggling to put away the mediocre ones.
Our widely-admired attacking play, named-checked again after Danny Care’s Quins-like try for England against Ireland last Saturday, has been blunted by defences that have become generally much better organised, often by rugby league coaches that have moved cross-code.
There are no push-over teams in the Premiership any more – well, not if you don’t count the Worcester Warriors, who haven’t won a Premiership game yet this season.
The bottom line is, given where Quins are today, we shall be lucky to make the play-offs in May.
It is a time-honoured truth that if you ask a fan of any under-performing rugby club what the remedy might be and, nine times of out of ten, they’ll recommend reaching for the proverbial chequebook.
For good or ill, that’s my view of Quins’ current position, not that I’m proud of it.
We have an enviable record of promoting within from the academy but – the fact is – every week we play our youngsters against teams that have bought fully-mature mercenaries, often from the southern hemisphere, often from the South Seas islands.
Maybe sometimes you do have to fight fire with fire.
Yesterday Quins announced that five members of the current squad – hookers Rob Buchanan, Joe Gray and Dave Ward, centre Tom Casson, and lock Charlie Matthews – have been awarded 2-year contract extensions and fly-half/centre Ben Botica has been given a three year one.
On the face of it, these are all good men and true … and the move is great for team spirit and continuity.
The only Quins players left with uncertain futures now seem to be centres George Lowe and Jordan Turner-Hall and England loose-head prop Joe Marler.
George was an England Saxons centre, on the cusp of great things, but he suffered a bad injury in the autumn that knocked him out for the entire season.
Jordan Turner-Hall, another centre who played briefly for England, has only just come back to fitness after five months out injured, and is rumoured to be on his way out at the end of the season.
The cute speculation-mongers have it that his representatives and the club are negotiating hard but currently playing ‘chicken’. Rumours are out that he may be going west – both Bath and Exeter have been mentioned – or even to France but frankly, Quins would be crackers to let him go.
At this juncture in our development on from the woes of the Bloodgate Affair, what we need are more big ‘names’ of proven ability and perhaps a few less promotions from the academy.
It is never automatic that the latter inevitably make it to first team starting places and/or international honours. Some just don’t ‘train on’, some get injured and some, for random other reasons, just plateau out.
I have now reluctantly formed the view that, in this day and age, you need to leaven your callow youths of raw promise with an occasional monster who has already been there and done it.
Preferably one who still has the fire in his belly and is not just taking one last payday to add to his pension pot.