Saracens are not able to safely admit 10,000 or more supporters to their stadium because they do not have the necessary certificate, the Guardian can reveal, raising questions over the stringent criteria that govern promotion to the Premiership.
When Saracens won promotion back to the Premiership in June 2021 they had to be given special dispensation to compete in last season’s top flight because their ground was being developed and its capacity was below 10,000. This season, Saracens have opened their newly renovated west stand, taking the capacity back above that mark, but because they do not have the relevant safety certificate, they can only safely admit 9,999 supporters. The attendances for Saracens’ three home matches this season have been 9,212, 9,428 and 9,010.
A key part of the Minimum Standards Criteria (MSC), which outlines the requirements for promotion to the Premiership, is that clubs are able to safely hold crowds of 10,001. It is the main reason that both Ealing Trailfinders and Doncaster were told in March they could not be promoted last season regardless of whether they won the Championship. Ealing went on to finish top of the second tier but were denied promotion because they did not meet the MSC.
The MSC were tweaked in September to state that Championship clubs hoping to be promoted needed to be able to safely hold crowds of 5,000 next season but have planning permission in place to upscale to 10,001 the following season. At the time, Phil De Glanville, chair of the Professional Game Board (PGB), said: “It remains the view of the PGB that a minimum grounds capacity of 10,001 is important due of the rigour of the Local Authority issued safety certificate for stadia of this size in addition to its importance for fans, sponsors and broadcasters.”
The RFU declined to comment, insisting that it was a matter for Saracens despite the fact that the union, as part of the Professional Game Board, supposedly plays a key role in overseeing the MSC.
Saracens said in a statement: “During the construction of the new west stand, Saracens have been operating under a safety certificate with a maximum capacity of 9,999. It is the responsibility of the local authority and its safety advisory group, London Borough of Barnet in our case, to issue such a safety certificate.
“Once a stadium capacity moves above 10,000 it must be designated by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and this process is once again managed by the local authority, not Saracens. It is our understanding that the local authority cannot seek designation by the Secretary of State based on plans, but only on the completion of the construction of a stadium or new stand that takes the capacity beyond 10,000.
“On the completion of the new west stand at StoneX stadium the London Borough of Barnet started the process to seek designation by the Secretary of State and so we are now in the hands of this designation process. At this point there is nothing Saracens could have done differently or can do to accelerate this as we have followed the required process.”
The RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, and his Premiership counterpart Simon Massie-Taylor, meanwhile, have both recently insisted that ambitious Championship clubs can still be promoted to the top flight next season despite the crisis engulfing the domestic game with both Wasps and Worcester suspended and in administration.
However, that leaves clubs such as Ealing and Doncaster in the bizarre predicament of having to commit to upgrading their stadiums to a minimum capacity of 10,001 despite such evident uncertainty over the longer-term structure of English rugby. They could conceivably win promotion to the Premiership and join the remaining 11 teams next season, then set about renovating their stadiums at a multi-million pound cost only to find that from 2024-25, when the next Professional Game Agreement kicks in, a 10-team Premiership has been introduced.
“We are not going to please everybody in this process,” said Sweeney. “You never do in rugby. If you’re pleasing 70% you’re probably doing well. So we are going to have to be bold here, we are going to have to be decisive, we are going to have to say: ‘Right, if this is the best structure for the game what’s the time period for us to be able to get there.’ I see our responsibility here to set the course, to lay the direction for the long term recovery and sustainability of the English game.”