The Rugby Pod's burning question: 'What does it do to Maro's brand by playing in the Championship?'
It’s still unclear whether Championship-bound Saracens will have Maro Itoje to call on in 2020/21. The London club have been automatically relegated to the English second tier, but is that level of rugby sufficient for a player who could potentially captain the Lions on their 2021 tour to South Africa?
Speculation that he might also switch to Leicester, who have Steve Borthwick coming on board as head coach, was also dismissed by Geordan Murphy, the Tigers director of rugby insisting there was nothing in the link that Itoje could play at Welford Road under the forwards coach he had worked with at England and the Lions.
This current limbo points towards Itoje sticking with Saracens as they prepare to embark on a discovery trip around the Championship, the unglamorous English league that even the RFU recently halved its grant funding to.
Jim Hamilton, Itoje’s ex-Allianz Park team-mate, just can’t see it happening, the potential Lions skipper turning up at places like Cornish Pirates and Coventry over the winter. Pondering this curious situation on the latest edition of The Rugby Pod, Hamilton reckoned playing in the Championship would damage Brand Maro and put the skids on him potentially becoming a sports megastar known around the world outside rugby.
“The big one is Maro Itoje. He has not come out (and said) – neither has Mako Vunipola – in terms of what they are doing next season,” said Hamilton on the show he fronts with Andy Goode. “I texted Maro actually last week having watched The Last Dance documentary.
“I’m not saying that I see completely parallels with Michael Jordan and Maro Itoje, but I do see some similar opportunities for Maro being the kind of player that he is and the standing he has in the game. I just wonder what that will do.
“Unfortunately what I’m about to say now hasn’t been bandied about in rugby before in the public domain and probably around team environments, but what does it do to Maro’s brand by playing in the Championship?
“There is talks of Maro potentially being the Lions captain. Does playing a season in the Championship in the lead-up to that put him in a good position to do the Lions? But also the brand – Adidas who sponsor him, all the other sponsors – it’s a big decision for him to make and he has not come out yet and said he is definitely staying at Saracens.
“He hasn’t got a lot to gain by playing in the Championship. He doesn’t need rest, he needs exposure, he needs his profile to stay where ever it is. Unfortunately some people might disagree with me. They might not like him, they might not like that side of rugby, but I love it.
“Maro has got a real opportunity in rugby to be the first megastar that we have seen and I just don’t know if playing in the Championship, even if there are exhibition games (as well), even if there are different training programmes for England, whether that will suit someone like Maro in the position he is in who needs to play a lot.”
Having announced earlier this week they would be keeping up-and-coming lock Joel Kpoku, Saracens revealed on Wednesday they had signed Aled Davies on a three-year deal, the scrum-half opting to come to London and sacrifice his Wales selection prospects.
Ex-England international Goode believes other signings will follow as Saracens will aim to keep stars suxh as Itoje off their feet as much as possible in the Championship. “When you look at it, what are they preparing for now because who knows when the (current) season is going to restart again?
“They are making noises around some signings because they know they are going have to balance their squad around having superstars like Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, all the guys that won’t be running out at Ampthill I very much doubt or Doncaster or whatever other grounds they will be playing at in the Championship.
“But also at the minute we are sat there going, do they make signings to get them through? They have let certain players leave the club on loan. What would happen to those players if it [the Premiership] did get ring fenced?
“There is noises around Juan Pablo Soccino going to Saracens to be a kind of filler for Owen Farrell because ultimately Owen Farrell will be driven by playing some big games for Saracens if there are any, England internationals and building up towheads the Lions tour, and then I’m hearing about Matt Garvey to Saracens as well.
“It’s difficult to know what is going in the world. There is a lot of players out of contract at the minute around the world who are probably looking and nervously waiting to see how long this takes to get back to playing to see if any clubs have got any money to make some signings.”
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