Win or lose, it was never going to be the glorious season Saracens would have hoped for with alleged breaches of the Premiership’s salary cap rules hanging over them.
Now, after a near three-year investigation by Premiership Rugby, the back-to-back league champions have been hit with a 35-point deduction and fined a staggering £5.3m after being found guilty of failing to comply with the cap.
The violations span the last three seasons – two of which resulted in league success – but the points deduction will be applied in full this campaign which puts the team in a difficult position.
Within ten minutes of Tuesday’s announcement, Premiership Rugby had already updated the league table with the North London club now sitting bottom on minus 26 points after three matches – 30 points behind Bath and Leicester.
If Saracens finished with 35 points less last season, for example, they would have been languishing in 10th place. Not a position any team wants to find themselves in.
Saracens are an unstoppable force and one of the most enjoyable teams to watch across any sport, but this season will be a significant test of their resilience and ability to stay motivated and injury free while battling against constant media attention.
And, although they boast the best squad in Europe, this is no normal year with players returning from World Cup duty fatigued and then out of club action again from mid-January due to the Six Nations.
When you’re missing seasoned internationals Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams, Sean Maitland, Duncan Taylor and Test class players such as Rhys Carre, Alex Lozowski and Ben Spencer all at once over any season, it’ll be a tough prospect coming up against the top English sides.
Coupled with this will be various injuries from the prolonged and gruelling season – especially towards the business end of the campaign – plus a lack of mental freshness.
As easy as they made it look on the field in previous seasons, it’s going to be a serious challenge now for Mark McCall’s side.
The investigation and 35-point sanction will inevitably throw up all sorts of questions over the coming days and weeks.
Why was the point deduction applied to the current season and not the three previous years where the breaches took place?
Will the wage bill challenge the cap, and if so, how will they deal with it?
How they approach the season now with the pressure to put points on the board?
Is the club’s very existence under threat given the severe financial penalty and relegation threat?
Players are undoubtedly going to pick up knocks and McCall will surely want to rest players from some domestic fixtures leading into key European matches.
The international stars, in particular, can’t be expected to play every game and need to be fresh for marquee outings.
But if they fail to finish in the top four – almost certain now – and lose in the Champions Cup, then Sarries will be plying their trade in the Challenge Cup for 2020-2021 season, which has major implications on money and additional sponsorship for the club going forward.
It’s hard to know what will happen or where the cuts will have to come from in order to comply with salary cap regulations, but the obvious case would be for some international stars to take pay cuts or several figures having to leave the club.
That may sound extreme, but if Saracens are being punished for their lucrative spending then cuts have to be made from somewhere.
The quickest option for the club is to appeal so that the fine is at least delayed and they have a better chance of holding onto certain players for longer.
It remains to be seen what will happen next but Tuesday’s announcement is clearly a significant hammer blow to a team both on a sporting and financial level.
Their dominance across both European and domestic competition in recent years has been nothing short of exceptional, but class aside, this year is a different challenge as they face a battle to prove their integrity.
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