Premiership club sources have confirmed that Saracens are “looking down the barrel” at the prospect of relegation to the Championship this year in the latest twist to the salary cap scandal that increasingly threatens to affect the English national team. It is understood Saracens have accepted they are still currently operating above the cap and demotion to the second tier for next season has emerged as the most probable outcome.
The Premiership and European champions were originally fined £5.36m and docked 35 points last November after being found to have broken the league’s £7m salary cap for the previous three seasons, during which time they won the league twice. Originally it had been indicated that Saracens would be given until the end of the season to demonstrate they were not exceeding the cap for 2019-20 but they have now been asked by Premiership Rugby to show they are complying now.
The possibility that Saracens could escape relegation this season while still breaking the salary cap has angered many of their rivals and the club appear to be struggling to provide the necessary assurances. Simply offloading players to cut costs will not be enough as any severance payments would also count under the terms of the cap. There is also the issue of finding other England clubs who can take them. Most are already spending up the cap and, therefore, cannot accommodate any further players.
It leaves Saracens with a massive problem: even if their star England players agreed to play for nothing until the end of the season they have, in salary cap terms, already been receiving their inflated salaries since June. Only the salaries of players who have not played a minute of rugby for the club this season can be removed from the equation leaving Saracens’ acting chief executive, Ed Griffiths, with little wriggle room.
Should Saracens end up in the Championship, it would also present those players still at the club with a massive dilemma: at present England pick the national team only from the Premiership and international rugby is essential for those wanting to put themselves in the shop window for selection for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour. The RFU insisted on Friday, however, that there was no barrier to Eddie Jones selecting players from the Championship for the England team.
It is a shattering comedown for a group of players who have been the dominant force in English and European club rugby in recent times. Patience, however, has run out among those who have long believed – and have now had it independently confirmed – that Saracens were not abiding by the salary cap regulations.
The prevailing view among the Premiership’s chairmen is that this continuing failure to do so leaves little option but to punish them afresh if they cannot comply. “We have been talking to them and working out what they were going to do for a long time now,” said a club source. “The reality has become apparent that it is difficult for them to become compliant for this season. They are definitely looking down the barrel. Time has to run out for them eventually.”
Saracens’ retired chairman Nigel Wray has now cut all formal ties with the club, after his shared investments with star players including Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje prompted Premiership Rugby’s original investigation. Griffiths confirmed this week, however, that “the Wray family have always been committed to Saracens and remain so.” The club’s next game is this Sunday when they host Racing 92 in the final round of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup pool stages.