The defending champions have been docked 35 points and are now fighting to escape the drop. Jacob Whitehead assesses their chances
Can Saracens avoid relegation from the Premiership?
Saracens have been Premiership champions for four of the past five seasons – but this campaign will be a different story. Earlier this month they were punished for breaching salary cap regulations for the past three seasons.
The offence related to player/owner co-investments between Saracens’ leading international players and business magnate owner Nigel Wray.
The punishment was massive: a fine of more than £5m and – crucially – a 35-point deduction in the league, levied immediately. At the current moment Saracens are stuck at the bottom of the table, on -22 points, even though they’ve won three of their opening four games this season.
So, with the Premiership more competitive than ever, can Saracens avoid relegation? We take a deep-dive into the stats – and think about the other factors which will make escaping the drop harder than ever.
Since London Welsh’s disastrous 2014-15 season, in which they collected only a single point, the respective points total of the relegated teams has been 20 (London Irish 15-16), 20 (Bristol 16-17), 22 (London Irish 17-18) and 31 (Newcastle 18-19).
This averages out at 23.5 points, although the eagle-eyed will have noticed that the total is growing larger each year – a trend that could well continue this year. No team has either won all their games or lost all their games, a sign that teams in the league are more closely matched than ever before.
Saracens will also be disappointed that the promoted team, London Irish, have recruited aggressively over the summer, and have already won two games.
Newcastle were sent down to the Championship last season with a total of 31 points, although had they beaten Leicester in the season’s closing weeks, one of the two sides would have been relegated with a total in the mid-thirties!
So, lets say that Saracens face a best-case scenario in which they require 24 points, and a worst-case scenario in which they need 35 points – can they do it?
Well, over the past four seasons Saracens have accumulated 78, 77, 77 and 80 points – an average of 78 per season, and 3.55 points a game. With 18 games left to play this season, this means we can project them to win 68.3 points over the course of the season.
Therefore, if Saracens manage to perform as they have in recent seasons, they will end on around 42 points, which should be enough to avoid relegation, although fourth place (average of 62.5 points since 2015) and Champions Cup qualification (average of 55.5 points since 2015) seems out of reach. However, this season may be even more troublesome for Saracens, for the following reasons…
The Six Nations will affect at least five rounds of the Gallagher Premiership, with Saracens likely to be one of the hardest hit clubs in the league. In all likelihood the men in black will lose the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly to England – and may also lose Jack Singleton, Ben Spencer.
Duncan Taylor and Sean Maitland may appear for Scotland, whilst Liam Williams faces a fitness race to recover to play for Wales.
The Six Nations also coincides with a tough set of fixtures for Saracens, as they’re slated to be away to Wasps and early pace-setters Northampton during the championship, and visit current league leaders Bristol the week after the tournament when a lot of internationals are generally rested.
With some of Saracens’ World Cup stars having already played ten games this season, and with another five Six Nations games on the horizon, the North Londoners will be forced to rest many of their international stars for more games than usual to comply with player welfare regulations.
This is why Mark McCall has publicly said that he will play a rotational side in the Champions Cup – Saracens can simply not afford to use up their key players’ valuable game-time in a competition which will not ensure league survival.
They will have nine league games left after the Six Nations and relegation will still be in the balance – they’ll likely still be bottom of the table – but how many games will Farrell, the Vunipolas, Itoje etc. be able to actually play? Or will the young guns have enough to ensure survival?
Saracens have some of the best squad depth in the league (which some will point out is no surprise given their recent penalties). Indeed, a back-line shorn of their international stars could read as follows: Wigglesworth, Malins, Lewington, Barritt, Tompkins, Lozowski, Goode.
However, this season injuries have piled up, most critically amongst those who didn’t go to the World Cup. Saracens are being forced to play Manu Vunipola, 19, their fourth-choice fly-half after injuries to Max Malins and Alex Goode.
Promising prop Ralph Adams-Hale, who made such an impact in last season’s Premiership final, suffered a horrible ankle injury at Gloucester and is expected to be out for an entire year, while Juan Figallo and Liam Williams have returned from the World Cup crocked.
During the Six Nations, rookie Matt Gallagher is set for an extended run at full-back, whilst Manu Vunipola and Malins (when fit) will be expected to shoulder the fly-half burden. All extremely talented players, but inexperienced – not what Saracens would have hoped for when scrapping for premiership survival.
Bath (A) – L
Bristol (H) – W
Exeter (A) – L
Worcester (H) – W
Harlequins (A) – W
Sale Sharks (H) – W
Wasps (A) – W
Northampton (A) – L
Leicester (H) – W
Bristol (A) – L
Harlequins (H) – W
Gloucester (H) – W
London Irish (A) – W
Wasps (H) – W
Sale (A) – L
Exeter (H) – W
Worcester (A) – W
Bath (H) – W
Thirteen wins and five losses would give Saracens 52 points, while there are likely to be bonus points – of the losing and try-scoring variety – too. So a total of just under 40 points, taking into account the deduction, can be projected for Saracens.
Relive every moment of the 2019 World Cup in the December 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine – in shops now.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.