Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Saracens' enforced mid-season exodus might just play into hands of Irish provinces'
Disruption may wreak havoc with champions' European title defence, writes Rúaidhrí O'Connor
The penny has dropped at Saracens and it appears the European champions are about to shed themselves of a host of players in mid-season as a result of their failure to comply with the salary cap and resultant fine and points deduction.
Having been found guilty of breaching the cap for the last three seasons, the next question hanging over the Premiership winners was how they were going to come under it this year given they've strengthened since claiming the double.
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The answer, it seems, is a mini exodus of players that will see Liam Williams return to Scarlets ahead of schedule. Michael Rhodes, Juan Figallo and Calum Clark may be released from the last year of their contracts, and England and Lions second-row George Kruis is being linked with a move to Japan.
It allows Saracens to reduce their wage bill, but changes to a tight-knit squad will surely cause further disruption to a panel of players who have been rocked since the start of the season.
"We need to address the perception we are not operating on a level playing field in the coming days," new chief executive Edward Griffiths said this week.
"You either reduce your head count by letting people go or alternatively you reduce the salaries of those already there. This will clearly cause instability and uncertainty within the squad and it is in everyone's interest that this is sorted as soon as possible."
Still on minus-seven points despite winning six of their eight league games, Mark McCall's primary focus is on avoiding relegation from the Premiership.
Yet, they are still in the hunt for a place in the European Champions Cup last eight and have Munster in their sights as they take on Ospreys this weekend.
The general sense is that the Irish province are in win-or-bust territory, but even if they lose to Racing on Sunday they could still progress if they pick up a bonus point in Paris, hammer the Ospreys and the French club go to London and beat Sarries in the final round of games, denying them a bonus point.
It may be an unlikely scenario given Saracens' record at home, but if they do overcome Munster, Racing will be gunning for a lucrative home quarter-final and will arrive locked and fully loaded, ready to expose any drop-off in standards like Clermont did in 2017 when they won at Allianz Park.
Even if they do progress, Saracens do not look like the unstoppable force they were last season and the loss of five senior squad players will hurt them as the season goes on, weakening their title credentials.
That should benefit Leinster, who are the bookies' favourites to regain their title after securing a place in the last eight with two rounds to go.
Leo Cullen and his side won't want any favours en route to their fifth crown and, having come up short in last year's final, you sense they'd love another crack off the English side.
They might even get their wish if things work out a certain way, but even still the gap between the teams has narrowed and Leinster are a different proposition in Dublin.
The shockwaves from the Saracens story have continued to resonate all season and as Europe reaches its most important point, the champions' scenario could benefit two key Irish protagonists.