Saracens could face a battle to hang on to their England stars if they fail to secure an immediate return to the Premiership, with several senior players believed to have release clauses in their contracts.
The shock defeat by Cornish Pirates on Saturday was a sobering start to life for Saracens in the Championship and suggested this season's second tier will not be the cakewalk it appeared to be. Mark McCall's side can call on their England cavalry in the form of the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly after the Six Nations but the margin for error in an already shortened Championship season is now even smaller.
Saracens are still favourites to rejoin the top flight for next season’s 13-team league and their most recent accounts, filed last week, state “our planning presumes our promotion back to the Premiership”. They add that “a material uncertainty exists in relation to the ability of the company to continue as a going concern as the business plan is dependent on the club’s return to the Premiership”.
Accordingly, Saracens tied the majority of their international players to new deals last summer in the expectation of an immediate return to the Premiership. On Wednesday Mako Vunipola said he would have to check his contract when asked if he had a get-out clause in his but it is believed several senior players have agreements that would enable them to leave.
“As a Sarries player, it was a shock result, but I feel more for the players,” Vunipola said. “I’m gutted for them. It’s tough. Obviously, being in this [SIX NATIONS], it’s very difficult to split your time and focus. When you are away with England, you try to focus on that but still speak to them.
“In terms of having a clause or anything, I wouldn’t know. I still feel that I want to go back and fight for Saracens, but I’d have to look into the contract stuff to be 100 per cent on that. Right now, in this present moment, it’s very difficult to focus on two things at once. We’ve got a lot of work to do with England and it takes up a lot of time, but I do speak to some of the [SARRIES]boys to see how they are and how it’s going.”
In the short term, Vunipola’s focus is France as England seek to avoid a third defeat of the Six Nations on Saturday. Saracens’ relegation to the Championship, and the subsequent lack of game time for their England players, has been identified as one of the key reasons behind their poor form. So far Jones has refused to drop them but his patience is unlikely to extend to another season in the Championship.
Vunipola brushed off suggestions that there are any “untouchables” within the squad, however, and Jones is expected to make changes to the side that lost to Wales.
It is believed he is considering shifting Itoje to blindside flanker with Charlie Ewels the likely beneficiary in the secondrow while the Bristol pair of Ben Earl and Max Malins are pushing hard for their first Test starts.
“There is no such thing as untouchables,” Vunipola said. “Obviously when you are the captain as [OWEN]is there is a perception that he is undroppable but there is no such thing as that. The reason he is captain is because he is a leader first and foremost.
“The only person that decides whether we are undercooked or ready for it is Eddie and that’s the person we listen to. If we were undercooked, the only person that needs to make that call is Eddie, he is the boss.” - Guardian