The Daily Telegraph - Business

Saracens return to mount title charge free from relegation scars

After an enforced year in the Championsh­ip and clever use of loan system, McCall’s side are as strong as any in top flight

- By Jake Goodwill

Saracens have served their punishment for failing to comply with the Premiershi­p’s salarycap regulation­s. They spent the year in the Championsh­ip demolishin­g their opponents, bar an early-season upset against the

Cornish Pirates, securing their inevitable promotion back to the top flight.

One of the consequenc­es of Saracens’, in the words of Lord Dyson, “reckless” and “flagrant” failure to comply with the rules was the disintegra­tion of their star-studded and unparallel­ed squad. Or so we thought.

Almost two years on, Saracens have not been torn apart as anticipate­d. The predicted mass exodus simply did not happen, at least on a permanent basis.

Instead, through the clever use of loan deals and the developmen­t of young players in the Championsh­ip, Mark McCall’s side return to the Premiershi­p with as strong a team as any in a league where all squads have shrunk due to a reduction in the salary cap.

Two of Saracens’ players in particular have developed considerab­ly since the scandal unfolded. Ben Earl and Max Malins, who both spent time at Bristol Bears, have blossomed into regular England internatio­nals and standout Premiershi­p performers. Malins has added another positional string to his bow, proving he can play not just fly-half and full-back, but on the wing with aplomb, too.

Other notable returning loanees include Nick Isiekwe, Alex Lozowski, Alex Goode and Nick Tompkins (the latter two went back to Saracens before the end of their Championsh­ip campaign). That makes

six internatio­nal players who are back in red and black to add to the England stalwarts and British and Irish Lions who never left.

Isiekwe certainly benefited from his loan spell and could yet force his way back into Eddie Jones’s England plans.

There are positions that Saracens are now weaker in, with scrum-half being the most apparent. Aled Davies, a Wales internatio­nal himself, is not an equal replacemen­t for both Ben Spencer and Richard Wiggleswor­th. That being said, Davies’s deputies will be Ivan van Zyl – a 26-year-old six-time Springbok – and Ruben de Haas – the talented South African-born US half-back. Hardly slim pickings for McCall, who extended his time with Saracens to 2025 earlier in the year.

George Kruis, the formidable line-out operator, has not returned, staying in Japan. Will Skelton, who has blossomed even further at La Rochelle, has departed, too. But with England’s best player, Maro Itoje, at the club alongside the everimprov­ing Isiekwe, the second row remains well stocked.

Former Scotland regular Tim Swinson is also in the squad after playing some fabulous rugby in the Championsh­ip while Callum Hunter-Hill and Joel Kpoku benefited from increased first-team action last term.

In particular, Saracens have retained remarkable depth in the outside backs. Internatio­nals Elliot Daly, Tompkins, Lozowski and Duncan Taylor remain – and that is excluding Owen Farrell, who could play 12 with Manu Vunipola at fly-half. Dom Morris is also a fine player in his own right.

A comparison of the Saracens senior squad in September 2019 to now does illustrate that the team

built illegitima­tely has been slightly thinned – but not to the extent one might expect.

The Lions tour taking place so late does mean a significan­t contingent of the Saracens squad will miss the start of the season. But so will Exeter, with Sam Simmonds, Luke CowanDicki­e, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Hill all part of the touring party.

And Saracens will not be playing Champions Cup rugby either.

It is apparent Saracens’ relegation

has not set them back long term. They return to the Premiershi­p with a squad destined for at least the play-offs and the envy of coaches around the league.

Are Saracens weaker than in 2019? Marginally. Are they weaker relative to the other sides competing in the league this season? Absolutely not.

 ??  ?? Big lift: Maro Itoje stayed at Saracens
Big lift: Maro Itoje stayed at Saracens

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