Saracens Q&A: What is going on and what does relegation mean?

Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell of Saracens lift the trophy after winning the the Gallagher Premiership final against Exeter
Saracens won both the Premiership and European Champions Cup last season

Why are Saracens, one of England's most successful rugby union clubs, being relegated from the Premiership at the end of the season?

In the past five years they have dominated both domestically and in Europe, with Sarries winning England's Premiership four times and being European champions three times.

Six Saracens players started for England in the Rugby World Cup final defeat by South Africa in November, including captain Owen Farrell.

But the north London club were hit by a massive fine and points deduction late last year for breaking salary cap rules.

And Premiership Rugby has now confirmed Saracens will be relegated to the Championship at the end of the 2019-20 season.

What's the background?

In November, Saracens were given a 35-point deduction and a £5.4m fine for breaching salary cap regulations for the previous three seasons.

Initially, the club insisted they had done nothing wrong and said they would appeal - this was later withdrawn and the punishment accepted.

It was not until Nigel Wray resigned as chairman and Edward Griffiths returned as chief executive that the club admitted culpability and announced plans to trim down their squad in order to comply with the cap this season.

On Tuesday, 14 January, Premiership bosses met in London at a board meeting.

Given Saracens had not been able to show evidence they were going to comply with the cap this season, it was decided they should face further punishment.

According to Exeter chairman Tony Rowe, Saracens were given a choice: either open up their books for a forensic audit, or accept relegation. Sarries went down the latter route.

Have Saracens released any players this season?

Despite Griffiths' intentions, no players have yet left Saracens, either permanently or on loan.

Saracens are thought to have exceeded the cap by well in excess of £1m last season, and other Premiership clubs were determined to see the champions make major changes to their operation this campaign.

However, simply terminating players' contracts is difficult, with any compensation paid out also counting towards the cap.

While one solution would have seen the players taking a pay-cut across the board, this didn't materialise, and with players being paid since July, it would have been a case of too little, too late.

Nigel Wray
Saracens owner Nigel Wray, who first invested in the club in 1995, has now cut all formal ties with Saracens

How have the other clubs reacted?

Exeter have been the most vocal opponents - not surprisingly given how they have lost three Premiership finals in recent seasons to the men in black.

Shortly after Christmas, the Chiefs beat Sarries in an ill-tempered clash at Sandy Park, with director of rugby Rob Baxter strongly reiterating his disillusionment in an interview with the BBC.

Furthermore, Rowe went on BBC Radio Devon minutes after the relegation was confirmed.

"Every club just wants the same opportunity and chances and let's hope we get back to that," he said.

What happens after relegation?

Saracens' situation is complicated by Wray's retirement as chairman and resignation from the board. He has financed Saracens for decades, reclaiming full control in April 2018. Although Wray's family remain heavily involved, it isn't clear what long-term plans they have for the club.

While Sarries will remain Premiership shareholders, relegation for the club will lead to regrettable redundancies on the non-playing side.

As for the impact on the playing squad…

What happens to the players?

While relegation will almost certainly lead to the break-up of the star-studded squad, it is a complicated situation.

Unlike in football, where there is not a salary cap and there are set transfer windows, rugby clubs tend to finalise their squads for the new season at the start of the calendar year.

While some clubs may have room in the cap for a big name who suddenly becomes available, many will now have started to finalise their playing group for the 2020-21 season.

So either Saracens' players go on the market as free agents, or they take considerable pay cuts elsewhere, or they stay at Sarries - especially as it is unlikely they would have relegation clauses in their contracts.

Like with Mark Wilson and Newcastle, season-long loan deals are a distinct possibility, while players moving abroad is another option.

However, French clubs also have salary cap restrictions, many Pro14 sides are not flush with extra money, and operating overseas would mean players would not be eligible to play for England because of Rugby Football Union regulations.

The dismantling of the squad will start immediately. It's understood a handful of players will leave the club at the end of January.

Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell of England line up for the national anthem prior to the Rugby World Cup 2019 final between England and South Africa
Saracens players Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell all started for England in the Rugby World Cup final

Could England players play in the Championship?

Yes. There are no rules precluding selecting Championship players for England. While playing a significantly poorer standard of rugby in the second tier would be far from ideal preparation for international rugby - let alone the Lions in 2021 - there could even be benefits for the national side. For example, if a star name stays at Saracens in the event of relegation, he may be able to focus more on being fit and available for England, without the week-to-week grind of Premiership and Champions Cup action.

Can Saracens play in next season's Champions Cup?

As it stands, no. While the winners of the Champions Cup qualify for next season's tournament - and Saracens are still in contention - European organisers have confirmed to the BBC that only teams from the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro14 are eligible to play in European competitions. The only exceptions are the teams from emerging nations who play in the Challenge Cup.

What does it mean for the Premiership?

This episode will serve as a line in the sand. An independent review into the salary cap regulations - conducted by former government minister Lord Myners - is already under way.

It has not just hit the integrity of Saracens as a club - but the Premiership as a whole.

Now it is time to start to repair reputations.

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