On Sunday, The Rugby Paper ran a piece suggesting Sale Sharks hooker Tommy Taylor is set to leave the club when his contract expires this summer for a lucrative £170,000-a-year contract with Wasps.
This is a rumour that has gained considerable steam in the previous few weeks with the EggChasers Rugby Podcast also suggesting a deal had been completed – the same trio, it is worth noting, were also the first to report Brian Mujati was in talks with Sale over the summer.
For full disclosure I have absolutely no information on the rumour's validity. Unfortunately Taylor’s possible exit would be only the latest in a worrying trend that has seen Sale lose a multitude of young, talented players with legitimate international aspirations to larger and wealthier clubs in recent seasons.
Just to twist the knife that little bit more, it would once again be Wasps set to benefit from Sale’s years of nurturing their players from local amateurs to full-blooded Premiership stars, with the former already having plucked Rob Miller and James Gaskell (and Kearnen Myall and Simon McIntyre) from Sale since 2010.
Sale, as a smaller Premiership club with low revenues and match attendances and an inability to pay up to the salary cap, have seen a bevy of their young stars leave in recent years for greener pastures all around the country, swept up in the allure, ambition, and financial might that the Sharks unfortunately cannot match at this time.
It is no understatement to say that the exodus of talented and marketable players is a serious problem which threatens the long-term viability of the club. That Sale have done such an unbelievable job in replacing the likes of Luther Burrell, Henry Thomas, Matthew Tait, Michael Paterson et al. with comparable players and continuing to compete for a top-six spot on an annual basis, despite their shoestring budget, is a testament to the entire club, but is only a temporary solution. Until Sale can retain their most promising talents and supplement the team around them with international additions, it is hard to envision the Sharks ever coming close to repeating their title-winning exploits of 2006.
An increase in crowds is first and foremost the most desirable solution, especially now that the commendable job of making the AJ Bell an easily accessible venue has been completed, but unfortunately it is hard to build an aurora of positivity around the club when the team's stars leave en masse every couple of years for the glittering South (or Midlands).
So here we stand again. This time with Tommy Taylor, arguably the fourth-best Hooker in the country at tpresent and somebody knocking furiously on the door newly inscribed with Eddie Jones’ name.
Taylor is a budding star, there’s no other way around it.
A physical but intelligent operator on the field, those who have watched Sale since the Maxonian made his debut for the club in 2011 know Taylor possesses all of the attributes to become a star for both club and country. A smooth lineout orchestrator, committed ball-carrier and the ‘leader of the gang of those young lads at Sale’ according to Steve Diamond, Taylor has been one of Sale’s most consistent performers over the last year-or-so, coming back superbly from a career-threatening knee injury to supplant Marc Jones as Sale’s first-choice hooker (although Jones’ previously agreed move to Bristol may have admittedly played a part in that).
To quote Mr. Diamond once again, losing Taylor ‘would be a disaster’; not just for what the 24-year-old brings on the field but the potential knock-on effect it could have on the latest group of Sale first teamers with dreams of running out at Twickenham – namely Ross Harrison, Josh Beaumont, Will Addison, and Mike Haley. It’s a scary proposition to think what position Sale could find themselves in in as little as two years time if all five chose to uproot and leave the club upon the culmination of their respective contracts.
Yet should Taylor leave, one cannot blame him. Forging a living in a game where a single hit could end your career instantly is incredibly tough and if Wasps truly have made him an offer that is likely more than Sale could hope to ever table, there is absolutely no justification to begrudge Taylor for seeking the most for himself and his family.
And this is only in terms of money, Wasps can also offer huge crowds and a place in a team being built to challenge for domestic and European titles whilst Sale currently languish in mid-table.
As much as we Sale fans would love to cry ‘injustice’, it is simply market forces and the opportunity to beat Toulon in front of 15,000 fans that could coax Taylor away from Manchester. We should not blame Sale, Wasps, or even the RFU who certainly do not encourage the notion that you have to play south of the Midlands to be picked for England, should Taylor ultimately leave.
Instead, we should blame Premiership Rugby.
The Premiership board of directors might not have conspired to steal a Sharks player away from the club, but the measures taken in response to the investigations of possible salary cap breaches earlier this year that saw no disciplinary action taken and the salary cap actually raised as a result, will only serve to further increase the plucking of the smaller clubs’ academy products by teams with the financial might to annually challenge for the title.
The ruling made by Premiership Rugby to increase the league-wide cap to £7million and to add a second cap-exempt ‘marquee player’ is already proving to be driving a further wedge between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the English game. Sale simply do not have the luxury of either an owner with seemingly bottomless pockets (Bath and Saracens) or the geographical location to be the only club of real interest to the surrounding sporting aficionados (Northampton, Exeter), and therefore are being blown out of the water by their rivals’ ability to sign the Jamie Roberts-es, Louis Picamoles-es, Charles Piutaus, and Luke Charteris-es of the world.
But it is not just the capacity of the larger and richer Premiership clubs to attract world-class players that will cause an end to any semblance of competitiveness in the English Premiership. The increased salary limit will allow the likes of Wasps and Northampton to further pad out their formidable playing squads with (to them) supplementary players who formerly comprised the first teams of Sale and other lower mid-table clubs. Unfortunately, such instances are already in place and are only going to get more extreme – how frustrating is it to see Rob Miller, Kearnen Myall, and Luther Burrell occupy spots on the replacement benches of some of Sale’s closest rivals with the knowledge they would have guaranteed starting places had they remained at the AJ Bell?
Would I feel the same if the Sharks were magically bought up tomorrow by the uber-riches of Sheikh Mansour? Of course not. But I am happy to admit my hypocrisy and acknowledge the historical examples of Sale conducting the very same business with the likes of Newcastle and Leeds/Yorkshire Carnegie. It is because of this that we can understand exactly why Tommy Taylor could move to Wasps next season, it’s just an unfortunate and inescapable element of professional rugby.
But Premiership Rugby, with their dubious handling of the salary cap fiasco and protection of the league’s elite clubs, have facilitated a further exacerbation of the problem that plagues any club not able to challenge for playoff and top-six honours every season.
If Sale are to lose a third English player under 25 to Wasps in three years, do not blame the Sharks - who I believe are currently in contract discussions with Taylor and Will Addison - for being unable to stem the tides of the modern rugby market.
Also do not blame Taylor for taking an opportunity nearly all of us would take ourselves given the chance. Do not even blame Wasps for seeking to strengthen their squad with a talented young player to match their future ambitions.
Instead, blame Premiership Rugby, whose actions will prove decisive in opening the transfer floodgates for the affluent clubs the league caters to.
Let’s just hope we don’t see Josh Beaumont’s name in The Rugby Paper next week.
Lewis Hughes would like to see Tommy Taylor remain at Sale Sharks. Follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter for more news, analysis, and opinions on all things Sale Sharks.