Even in Saracens’ moment of triumph on Saturday their director of rugby, Mark McCall, admitted to mixed feelings. A first Premiership title since the salary cap saga that sent his club spiralling into the Championship ranked among his most satisfying achievements but this week could also bring a gloomy postscript if his old team London Irish become the third financially stricken club to be suspended from the league.
McCall is the smartest of operators and one whose determination to drive Sarries back to the top of the domestic game never left him, even in their darkest hours. He is also among those, however, keenly aware of the reputational damage done to the league when established names such as Wasps, Worcester and now, potentially, Irish disappear in a puff of debt-heavy smoke. “It’s hard to be jubilant when these things are happening,” the Ulsterman said. “I love London Irish and it would be awful if that happens.”
The sun-bathed final on Saturday duly delivered a perfect snapshot of the Jekyll and Hyde character of the current English club game. On the pitch the action was constantly absorbing and, from Saracens’ perspective, ultimately memorable. Off it the smallest final crowd (except for Covid-affected seasons) since 2007 reflected the wider perception issues (and flawed ticket pricing) that endure. “It’s a shame because it feels like the on-field product is good,” McCall said. “Hopefully we can get it right off the field.”
By the time of the Rugby World Cup this autumn it must also be hoped greater consistency exists around television match official interventions, with Saracens’ 71st-minute match-clinching try by the scrum‑half Ivan van Zyl awarded despite a lack of conclusive video evidence, and the initial opinion of the referee, Luke Pearce, that the ball had been held up by Sale’s full-back, Joe Carpenter. While not entirely the cause of Sale’s gallant 35-25 defeat – two costly second-half lineout steals were also pivotal – it was another oval-shaped case of the tail wagging the dog.
The next few months will be critical, furthermore, from the perspective of England’s head coach, Steve Borthwick, who must have been quietly encouraged by the contest on Saturday. Yes, the international game is a level up but Owen Farrell and Tom Curry were both outstanding with Max Malins, Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly not far behind. With the young Saracens hooker Theo Dan and Sale’s loose head Bevan Rodd also impressing, no one can say England lack talented, big-occasion players.
The conundrum, as ever, is how best to blend everything together and Saturday offered an obvious stylistic answer. Saracens have moved away from their conservative ways and, with Farrell at the tiller, have adopted a more flexible, bolder approach. England do not have the sheer forward power to shake South Africa and France but an amalgam of the strengths of Sarries, Sale and Leicester should make them genuinely competitive.
A more positive outlook is visibly suiting Farrell: in terms of slipping teammates into holes with smartly delayed passes and pressurising on opposing sides by making the correct decision at the right time, this has been the best season of the 31-year-old’s club career. “He’s playing unbelievably well but he’s always been a huge big match player,” his long-time colleague Alex Goode said. “How many finals has he got man of the match? He’s a competitor and it’s a joy to play with him.”
Both Farrell and McCall, though, were similarly quick to hail departing senior players such as Jackson Wray and Duncan Taylor for forging the resilient environment that has now brought Saracens six domestic titles in 12 years, either side of their self‑inflicted annus horribilis in 2019-20 which could have finished the entire club.
“I don’t think people talk about this enough,” Wray said afterwards. “It was the biggest fine in sporting history in a game where you lose money every year. And we have got through it. That says a lot more about the owners, to be honest. They said: ‘We made a mistake and we will stay and put it right.’ Together we have done it.”
McCall felt likewise – “It’s really satisfying, probably because of what happened three years ago” – and now believes his recast side can kick on again. “This is not the team that won the double in 2019 … this feels like the start of something.” Participating in a 10-team Premiership next season will nevertheless be a bittersweet experience for all involved.