English rugby champ Saracens relegated for salary-cap breach
In one of the most spectacular downfalls in the history of club rugby, English and European champion Saracens will be relegated at the end of the season for breaching the salary-cap rules.
The dramatic development leaves the future of some of the world's most high-profile players, like England captain Owen Farrell and international teammates Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, up in the air.
Premiership Rugby, which runs the English top tier, said Saturday that Saracens will finish the current season before being dropped down to the second-level Championship.
The club from north London has won four of the last five English titles and three of the last four European Cup titles, for one of the most dominant reigns in the history of European club rugby. However, those victories were followed by allegations of avoiding the English league's salary-cap rules by making payments to companies owned by Saracens players.
Saracens was deducted 35 points ahead of the start of the English league season and fined more than 5 million pounds ($6.5 million) for three seasons' spending above the cap.
They could not prove that they were compliant with the salary cap, having failed to release any of their high-earning players from the squad, and have chosen to accept relegation.
“I acknowledge the club has made errors in the past and we unreservedly apologize for those mistakes,” Saracens' new chairman Neil Golding said in a statement released by Premiership Rugby.
"I and the rest of the board are committed to overseeing stringent new governance measures to ensure regulatory compliance going forward.’’
Premiership Rugby also said it would commission a review of the salary cap system to ensure what CEO Darren Childs called “a level playing field for all clubs in the future.”
Exeter Chiefs were beaten by Saracens in the last two Premiership finals and the team's chief executive, Tony Rowe, told the BBC that he was relieved the champions have been strongly punished.
“Let's be very honest about this before people have sympathy with Saracens,” Rowe said. "They had two choices: They could either open up their books so that Premiership Rugby could do a forensic audit of exactly what has gone on, or they could take relegation. So it was their choice not to open up their books.
“We just want to move on. They have cheated. And I'm just a bit upset it has taken so long to do this. At the moment they are still picking their team each week largely from the squad they had last year, which is still in breach of the salary cap.”
Dropping into the second tier might mean Saracens are unable to retain the services of their top players, like Farrell and Itoje, who are mainstays of the England team. They might be able to enjoy similar salaries by playing in France's Top 14, but that would prevent them from being allowed to play in England.
It wasn't immediately clear if Saracens would be allowed to keep the trophies they won while being in breach of the salary cap.
Saracens have won six of their first eight league games but are still in last place on minus 7 points. They are in second place in their European Champions Cup pool but could still qualify by beating Racing 92 on Sunday.