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Saracens academy to the rescue?

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The extradordinary roll of the dice Mark McCall must make with his Saracens academy

After being found guilty of salary cap infractions that have left the club with a 35-league point deduction and a £5.3m fine, you could forgive Saracens fans for looking on the burgeoning 2019/20 season with a level of despondency.

The club have announced their intention to appeal the decision, citing the fact that the independent panel who made the decision acknowledged that Saracens did not deliberately attempt to breach the salary cap. In an official statement, Saracens confirmed that they, in error, had failed to disclose some transactions to Premier Rugby Limited, but that there was also precedent in PRL where co-investments have not been deemed part of salary in the regulations.

Until the appeal is concluded, the sanctions administered will not count against Saracens and, per the club’s statement, they will not be required to sell players, nor will the outcome of the investigation prevent the club from signing new players. Even if the club are successful in their appeal, it is unlikely the spectre of these sanctions is set to go away anytime soon and that, though Saracens fans may disagree, adds an intriguing and compelling subplot to the current Gallagher Premiership and European seasons.

You would have to go back to the 2008/09 season for a 35-point deduction to be enough to see Saracens relegated, when the club finished 30 points above 12th placed Bristol. Since then, Saracens have established a dynasty that has perennially seen them compete at the top of the table rather than the mid-table obscurity of the 2000’s, and although that dynasty is tarnished by the findings of the independent investigation, it has not diminished Saracens’ enviously deep and talented squad.

There is every reason to think that Saracens will be able to dig themselves out of this hole, assuming the appeal is unsuccessful, and avoid relegation from the top tier. There are some factors working against them, though, including the improved competitiveness at the bottom of the league, something which has not always been true over the past decade, and that the club are having to manage a large proportion of their squad’s workload after a busy Rugby World Cup campaign.

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Even when you factor in London Irish’s spending spree this summer, Worcester Warriors’ incremental improvements in recent seasons and the likes of Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Bath all potentially being sucked into a relegation battle, Saracens would still be a long way from the favourites for the drop. It does create an interesting dilemma, however.

Had the deduction been enforced last season, Saracens would have dropped to 43 points and finished 10th, two points clear of Leicester and 10 points clear of Newcastle Falcons. In that season, when their sizable England contingent didn’t have to deal with a Rugby World Cup campaign that stretched all the way to the final, they wouldn’t have qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup (via league position).

Even if they have a sublimely successful regular season in the Premiership over the next seven months, there’s a good chance that the 35-point deduction would see them miss out on qualification for the top tier of European rugby in the 2020/21 season. Their best shot at qualifying may be to aim for a fourth Champions Cup title and secure their place in next season’s competition as defending champions. If they attempt to do that, it will have serious repercussions in their allocation of playing time this season.

Saracens cannot play their front-liners, many of whom were involved in the Rugby World Cup, in every game. They have to prioritise the league or European competition. Conservatively, you would say this is no dilemma. You commit your stars to domestic action, ensure your survival in the Premiership and then anything else that comes your way is a bonus.

But then you have Saracens’ famed depth and academy production line, the latter of which this writer has extolled the virtues of for years and years. Can you rely on those players, interspersed with Saracens’ veterans and internationals at different points over the course of the season, to do enough to avoid the drop, whilst you go hammer and tongs in Europe? It’s a calculated risk.

As damaging as these findings have been to the Premiership from an integrity standpoint, they only add interest and intrigue to the current season. How good, when put under enormous pressure and expectation, really is Saracens’ academy production line? These guys don’t have the comfort of coming into a team that’s flying high at the top of the table, competing on multiple fronts or into a side where a mistake here or there is, outside of the knockout rounds of domestic or European competition, not going to derail an entire season.

They’ve been doing reasonably well so far, as Saracens have picked up two wins from their opening three games, with the likes of Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe, Rotimi Segun and Matt Gallagher looking like veteran leaders in the starting XV. Manu Vunipola has shouldered the responsibilities of a much more mature fly-half in just his second professional season, Ralph Adams-Hale might be making the leap at loosehead and Kapeli Pifeleti, a former academy product, has returned from a stint in the US with San Diego Legion. There’s Andy Christie, Sean Reffell and the seemingly Northampton-bound Joel Kpoku, too, all of whom can impress upon watching fans just how pro-ready the Saracens academy develops its players to be.

The senior stalwarts, such as Nick Tompkins, Alex Lozowski, Will Skelton and Jackson Wray, have all stepped up and their influence this season cannot be underestimated. They won’t be on a countdown like the internationals who were involved at the Rugby World Cup will be and the club will need them to stay fit. Getting the likes of Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Michael Rhodes back from injury and firing on all cylinders will be key, too.

How Mark McCall and the rest of his coaching staff approach the remainder of this season is one of the more fascinating things to happen in the top tier of English rugby for quite some time.

Saracens have walked the walk to back up the talk in regard to their commitment to their academy and the production of players for their senior squad, although never before have they been exposed to this sort potentially negative outcome. They have the highest percentage in the Premiership of their squad to have come from their own junior academy and that deserves praise, even if they have been in a fortuitous position in recent years to do so.

It was not that long ago that a young quintet of Joe Launchbury, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade, Billy Vunipola and Sam Jones played their parts in rescuing an administration-threatened London Wasps side from relegation and though this Saracens side is in far better shape than the former High Wycombe-based club were, the 35-point deduction is a fairly substantial leveller. Of course, that Wasps side weren’t competing in Europe’s premier competition and attempting to secure their fourth Champions Cup title, either.

Saracens’ youngsters’ performances on the field, integration into the senior set-up and seamless step ups in quality have thrived in the harmony of recent years. Now, with adversity all around, will they be able to rise to the fore once more?

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The extradordinary roll of the dice Mark McCall must make with his Saracens academy