Saracens are set for a return to the Premiership next year even if they can’t earn promotion on the field, while ambitious Ealing could be offered a chance to buy a place in the elite.
Contingency planning is taking place amid growing fears that the 2020-21 season of the Championship – the second tier of English domestic rugby – may not go ahead. Saracens have been relegated from the Premiership for past salary cap offences but they are now in limbo, awaiting clarification about the prospect of their next league campaign going ahead.
It is understood that up to half the clubs in the Championship would prefer to be moth-balled until the scheduled start of the 2021-22 season next September, to allow them to release players, slash costs and avoid savage losses for staging fixtures without crowds.
Saracens are set for a Premiership return next year even if they can’t earn promotion on field
In theory, Saracens cannot swiftly bounce back to the top flight if they do not have a league to win promotion from, but the latest indications are that a solution is taking shape.
Sportsmail has learned that Premiership clubs want to welcome back Mark McCall’s deposed champions next summer, come what may. If the conventional system won’t allow for them to play their way back in, there would be a drive to reinstate them as full shareholders anyway. One senior official within the Premiership said: ‘The reality is that there are 13 Premiership clubs and Saracens are one of them.’
At this time of COVID-related upheaval and financial turmoil, the clubs are convinced that expanding and ring-fencing the Premiership is an inevitability and the only way of saving the domestic game from oblivion. Talks have been held about the option of offering Ealing a chance to become the 14th member of the elite division, in return for a major investment.
Mike Gooley, the owner of the ambitious Championship club, is worth £360m and the head of travel firm Trailfinders has already ploughed more than £25m into his sporting project in west London. Last year, he told Sportsmail: ‘I haven’t written cheques to accelerate us straight into the Premiership but if we need to spend £7million, then I’m good for it.’
If the Championship is cancelled until 2021/21, Sarries could still return to the topflight
It is understood that the expansion plan would involve Ealing being allowed to purchase ‘P’ shares in the Premiership for around £20m. In addition, they would be expected to meet stringent criteria to prove they could be competitive and viable, with one source suggesting that the overall cost of the shares and spending on a playing squad, ground, training facilities and other infrastructure would amount to £50m.
While one well-placed source claimed yesterday that an ‘agreement’ was already in place between the RFU and Premiership Rugby for Saracens to be restored to the elite automatically at the end of the forthcoming season, the union last night insisted such a scenario had not been ratified. Any push to expand and ring-fence the league would require full council approval.
The RFU are adamant that preparations continue for the Championship season to start in January. However, any prospect of that happening will rely on a Government bail-out, which has not yet materialised. Without it – in light of the brutal cuts in union funding – clubs in the second tier can’t afford COVID testing. One fall-back possibility is that the Championship may go ahead with enforced restrictions on scrums, mauls and other collision areas, to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Premiership clubs want to welcome back Mark McCall’s deposed champions, come what may
The notion of Saracens taking part in a limited-contact league beggars belief. Conversely, other clubs need time to prepare for the possibility of a full-contact onslaught from McCall’s high-class side. Steve Hill, Richmond’s director of rugby, said:
We need to be training full-time, with contact from now to give ourselves time to prepare, if they want to start in January.
‘The players haven’t played since March – no contact. We can’t have an answer in mid-December. If it is then, the season won’t start until February and that’s too late. You can’t play a full season.’
Ealing Trailfinders want to mix it with the likes of Exeter under ambitious owner Mike Gooley
John Heaton, Richmond’s chairman, added: ‘Sarries will be part of the Championship, whatever the format, provided there is promotion. If there is no league or a hybrid with no promotion or relegation, they will take legal action. The RFU will be doing their upmost to make sure there is a competitive league and someone who finishes top, and there is promotion and relegation.’
Yet, with the new Premiership season starting on November 20, uncertainty abounds. Clubs have not be notified that there will be no relegation, but that is thought to be a distinct possibility, if the expansion and ring-fencing vision is authorised by the RFU.
Meanwhile, Saracens and all their England and Lions stars face the threat of staying in limbo until they end up back where they belong next September, one way or another. Their next ‘season’ may amount to nothing more meaningful than a series of ad hoc friendlies.