English club Saracens have accepted their imposed relegation from the Premiership and have pledged to win back confidence and trust.
The defending champions were told on Saturday they would be relegated at the end of the season for the salary cap breaches which have already cost them 35 points and a £5.36million fine.
Winners of four league titles in the last five years, Saracens will play in the Championship next term, having faced the impossible task of reducing their wage bill by up to £2m to comply with regulations for the current season.
The latest chapter in their fall from grace was delivered by Premiership Rugby on Saturday night and, ahead of a European encounter with Racing 92 on Sunday, the club have accepted their fate.
In a statement entitled ‘Saracens accepts relegation from the Gallagher Premiership’, the club said: “The board of Saracens wishes to apologise unreservedly for the mistakes made in relation to the salary cap regulations.
“Our goal is to rebuild confidence and trust. The first step was to appoint a new independent chairman to lead on governance reform ensuring errors of the past are not replicated in the future. Furthermore, following open and frank discussions with (Premiership Rugby), we have accepted the unprecedented measure of automatic relegation from the Premiership at the end of the 2019-2020 season.
“We understand this decision will be difficult for the Saracens family to accept. The board must embody the values of the club, learn from its mistakes so the club can come back stronger. It is in the wider interests of the Premiership and English rugby to take this decisive step, to ensure everybody is able once again to focus on the game of rugby, which we all love.
“We hope that we can now start to move forward, begin to restore confidence and over time, rebuild trust with PRL, its stakeholders and the wider rugby community.”
Saracens’ acceptance means the prospect of a drawn-out appeal process is over, but questions will quickly turn to the futures of their big-name players.
In delivering the relegation punishment, Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs said: “Premiership Rugby is prepared to take strong action to enforce the regulations governing fair competition between our clubs.
“At the conclusion of dialogue with Saracens about their compliance with the salary cap regulations, it has been decided that Saracens will be relegated at the end of this season.
“At the same as enforcing the existing regulations, we want to ensure a level playing field for all clubs in the future, which is why we have asked Lord Myners to carry out an independently-led review of the salary cap.”
There's a golden opportunity for the RFU to capitalise on Saracens' relegation.
Aggressively market the RFU Championship and put it on free TV. They won't have a better chance to increase lower league engagement.
— Linebreak Rugby 🎇 (@LinebreakRugby) January 19, 2020
Saracens are currently bottom of the table with minus seven points, lying 18 points behind 11th-placed Leicester.
Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe, meanwhile, was scathing in his criticism of Saracens and suggested it was the club’s own decision to drop out of the top flight.
“They’ve taken relegation,” he told BBC Radio Devon. “Let’s be very honest about this before people have sympathy with Saracens.
“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.
“Premiership Rugby – all the chairmen – we just want to move on. It was their opportunity to open up everything to the salary cap people, or take relegation. They have decided to take relegation.”
He added: “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. They have been asked by the rest of the Premiership clubs to reduce that (the squad) back as well.
“Everybody has had their suspicion for a long time. Five years ago they were hauled over the coals for similar offences. We just want a level playing field. Every club just wants the same opportunity and chances and let’s hope we get back to that.”
Premiership Rugby introduced its salary cap in 1999 to ensure the financial viability of all clubs and the competition.
Saracens’ sizeable England contingent – one that includes the likes of national captain Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola – would still be available for international selection if they were playing in the Championship.
But it would be an unsatisfactory situation for England head coach Eddie Jones, who is due to announce his Six Nations squad on Monday.
And Saracens’ demise could also affect their top players’ British and Irish Lions selection chances for the 2021 South Africa tour if they remain at Allianz Park.
Saracens, meanwhile, will not be in European competition next season and if, as expected, they return to the Premiership in 2021, they would compete in the second-tier Challenge Cup, rather than blue riband Champions Cup.
Even if they successfully retain the Champions Cup crown this season, they will not be able to defend it next term as they would require Premiership status to take part.