CHRIS FOY: Why Maro Itoje losing his marquee status to Owen Farrell opens up a real can of worms… with England lock facing 50% pay cut and clubs in France and Japan ready to pounce

Maro Itoje truly looked like a marquee player for Saracens on Saturday, as they thrashed London rivals Harlequins – even if he is not going to be one, officially, for much longer.

The England lock is grappling with a career quandary. Mail Sport’s exclusive story that he is facing a 50 per cent pay cut to stay at his current club has ignited a polarised debate. Itoje is believed to be on a salary of £800,000 per year at present, but it is understood that he has been offered a new deal worth £400,000-£425,000 per year, when his current contract expires at the end of this season.

That is due to losing ‘marquee’ status. Premiership clubs used to be allowed two such players each, who could be paid from outside the salary cap, but now they can only have one. Saracens appear to have nominated Owen Farrell to remain in that exalted category, with associated financial benefits. 

Rumours about the England captain switching to rugby league to play for Wigan – where he was born and initially raised – had grown louder, but the union champions are determined to keep him.

Many people have responded with incredulity to this news, partly based on the relative ages of the two Test stalwarts who were vying for one marquee slot. Itoje is 29, Farrell is 32. So the younger man may have hoped to be backed, as someone with a longer future – nominally – ahead of him. Instead, Saracens seem to have prioritised their captain and primary playmaker, which is hardly a shocking development. He has acquired an army of detractors, but Farrell is the club king-pin.

Saracens and England lock Maro Itoje (above) is grappling with a career quandary

Saracens appear to have nominated fly-half Owen Farrell as their 'marquee' player

Saracens appear to have nominated fly-half Owen Farrell as their ‘marquee’ player 

This is where it becomes complicated. All those who assume the RFU will simply make up the wages short-fall, with one of their shiny new ‘hybrid’ contracts, have no clear grasp of just how much the union are prepared to throw around. 

They are desperate to prevent a further exodus of England players to France and beyond, but can the national governing body really commit £400,000 per year to the retention of one player?

That seems highly unlikely, when the current system involves just 10 per cent of that amount being paid for each player supplied to the EPS (Elite Player Squad). 

The RFU cannot risk implementing a divisive system which rewards some clubs a lot more than others, as it would be seen as an unfair protection of the status quo.

It’s a real can-of-worms issue. Clubs could exploit the situation by offering low-pay deals to those they know the union will move heaven and earth to keep in the country. And, by definition, will the likes of Farrell – and other marquee men – not receive a hybrid contract, if their primary purpose is to prevent players from moving abroad?

Back to Itoje. If his pride has been wounded, he may choose to head to France or Japan. But first, it appears he intends to make a point with his performances. ‘Maro is back,’ said Jamie George, after Saracens had taken Quins to the cleaners. 

‘He’s back in a big way! He is as driven as he’s ever been. I don’t have enough superlatives for Maro Itoje. What a player that guy is! When he is like that, it’s contagious.’ So he is highly valued, but money talks. Over to the RFU…

Itoje is believed to be on a salary of £800,000 per year at but faces a 50 per cent pay cut

Itoje is believed to be on a salary of £800,000 per year at but faces a 50 per cent pay cut

Galthie loses out in Dupont deal 

So, France need a new captain for the Six Nations, because Antoine Dupont will be running around in the sun, in Vancouver and Los Angeles, practising Sevens, so he can be part of France’s team at their home Olympics. 

A penny for Fabien Galthie’s thoughts on this, given how desperate the head coach of Les Bleus will be to make amends for the recent World Cup disappointment (a quarter-final exit from their own event) by reclaiming the championship title, if not a Grand Slam, early next year. 

It would make more sense for Dupont to play in Sevens tournaments after the Six Nations, but that won’t be tolerated by Toulouse – who want their Galactico on duty – so this is clearly a compromise solution. It will undoubtedly diminish the Six Nations though. 

Dupont is a prime box-office asset and the tournament won’t be the same without him. France may decide to divert a few other household names from XVs into their Sevens programme ahead of the Games in Paris this summer, but none will be missed by Galthie, his team – and everyone else – as much as Dupont.

France star Antoine Dupont will miss the Six Nations to practice Sevens ahead of the Olympics

France star Antoine Dupont will miss the Six Nations to practice Sevens ahead of the Olympics

Welsh rugby hit by lack of players

When an independent review of the Welsh Rugby Union was published last week, all the focus was on historical issues of bullying, sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia, which rightly prompted condemnation, apologies and pledges to reform. But buried near the end of the 134-page report were some alarming observations about rugby’s standing in Wales. 

While the panel spoke of how the country was ‘devoted to its national sport’, concerns were reflected about the rush to a regional system in 2003-04 which many people surveyed felt ‘broke the link between clubs and their community’. It was noted that even top clubs are struggling to put out competitive teams, that 13 per cent of matches below professional level were cancelled last year – ‘largely due to a lack of players’ – and that many schools no longer fielded sixth-form teams. 

The report cited a ‘golden era’ for Welsh football and health concerns as factors behind rugby’s apparent decline. In the words of the panel: ‘Welsh people are gradually re-evaluating their national identity.’ Here’s hoping that oval-ball devotion is not lost there. The sport is not doing enough to expand, so it can’t afford to lose the fervour of a traditional heart-land.

Weekend highlights

Emotional farewell: Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones received a fitting send-off on Saturday, as the 38-year-old made a final appearance for Toulon, before retiring as the most-capped player in history. The veteran of 170 Tests for his country and the Lions was given a thunderous ovation at Stade Marcel Michelin – home of Clermont Auvergne.

Welcome back: Luke Cowan-Dickie was extremely influential on his home debut for Sale on Friday night – as they beat a spirited Newcastle side 40-22. He has endured a gruelling recovery from major injuries, but the England hooker quickly showed he still has plenty to offer.

Exciting prospect: In the same game in Salford, Sale’s teenage tighthead prop, Asher Opoku-Fordjour, followed up his dazzling exploits for England Under 20s by having an eye-catching impact off the bench; both in his strong scrummaging and some classy touches in open play. Some talent.

Shock return: Former French federation president and national coach, Bernard Laporte, has been installed as director of rugby at struggling Montpellier. It is quite a surprising development, given that he has a suspended ban from any involvement in rugby, after being found guilty of corruption.

Last Word

The old rotation system for tours by the British Lions is no longer fit for purpose

The old rotation system for tours by the British Lions is no longer fit for purpose

Not before time, the Lions have secured a deal with the Premiership, to ensure some co-operation ahead of the next tour, to Australia in 2025. 

English players will be fully available – due to their league final being moved to an earlier date – so, just for a change, the whole campaign won’t be in jeopardy before it has even begun. The Lions might even be fresh and ready. How novel. 

Sadly, their next hosts are in disarray. After a board-room coup, the chairman who brought back Eddie Jones for an ill-fated second stint – Hamish McLennan – has been ousted. Rugby Australia are in a financial black hole, their Super Rugby sides have been struggling for years and public interest is dwindling. 

The Wallabies were a rabble at the World Cup. The Lions have a raft of provincial games which could be awful mismatches, against inadequate opposition, in half-empty stadiums. The old rotation system between the three main southern-hemisphere nations is no longer fit for purpose. 

Future tours should be subject to a tender process. Maybe it is time to consider letting the Lions loose in France – or take them to new territories, as oval-ball missionaries. If the whole sport has to be moulded to their existence, as is the case, then the tired old format needs an urgent revamp.