Jamie George has vowed to stick with Saracens next season even though relegation to the Championship will put his place in the England squad and on the British and Irish Lions tour in doubt.
The 29-year-old was one of the club’s famous ‘Class of 08’ and came through the academy alongside the likes of Owen Farrell, George Kruis, Jackson Wray and the retired Will Fraser. But he has faced undoubtedly the biggest decision of his career over the last month, in whether or not to stick with the team in the second tier of English rugby or abandon ship to preserve his international stature.
Talks continue to take place between Saracens and their players over who will and won’t be retained next season, while those in Eddie Jones’s squad have also spoken with the Australian in regards to whether their place is safe if they are playing at a lower level of rugby.
But with the fallout from the salary cap scandal continuing to rock Premiership rugby –the latest development on Thursday seeing Allianz confirm end their sponsorship of Saracens with a year remaining on their agreed deal – George is ready to stand by the club he supported as a young boy even if it has an impact on his international opportunities next season.
“That’s the plan,” George said of facing at next season in the Championship. “I don’t know, we like doing stuff that’s not been done before … we’ll give it a go!
“I love the club, I’m committed to the club and it might be an opportunity to rest a little bit more as you don’t really get that at this stage of your career very often. The conversations are ongoing with Eddie and Mark (McCall) and the rest of it so we’ll work out a plan – and I think it will be different for each individual – but I want to stay at the club and I want to be part of the transition going forward.
“I think everyone’s different, I wouldn’t want to speak on their behalf. But everyone’s aware that that’s my plan for sure.”
It is the first time that England’s Saracens contingent – bar captain Owen Farrell – have felt ready to speak publicly about the ordeal, which has seen the future of every individual at the club thrown into doubt after they were found to have breached the Premiership’s salary cap in each of the last three seasons. The initial sanction of a 35-point deduction gave Saracens a fighting chance of survival, only for their refusal to submit to a mid-season financial audit for the current campaign and relinquish their two most-recent Premiership trophies to result in an additional 70-point deduction and certain relegation.
The Six Nations has provided a refuge for the likes of George, Farrell and Maro Itoje as they attempt to concentrate on international matters, but while it has been an easy process to push all the disruption to one side, it is never far away from conversation. The likelihood is that while their England internationals will be safe, the players on the fringe for both club and country will have to leave for the good of their careers, with no certainty of having a new home.
“We are obviously feeling for the boys at the club who are having to deal with it day-in, day-out,” said George. “As the lads coming away into camp it was almost a relief. We’ve got something else to go after now, and something else to focus on.
“Eddie addressed it early on, the players addressed it, whether anyone had any issues but thankfully they didn’t. We moved past it pretty quick and then suddenly our focus was on that (playing).”
He added: “It all felt a little bit rushed and we haven’t got all the answers yet. It’s a difficult one. We are 80 or 90 per cent of the way to knowing what’s going on but there’s still a few bits to work out. It’s never nice hearing that your mates going through a hard time or the people being upset at the club. These are all things that aren’t the best but at the same time when we are here it’s nice to be able to focus on games at the weekend.”
Much of the blame on the players has been absolved due to the fact that it was the club’s duty to make the off-book property co-investments agreements known to Premiership Rugby’s salary cap manager Andrew Rogers, which has resulted in former chief executive Nigel Wray paying the price with his job. One issue is that the co-property agreements identified as the reason behind the salary cap breach surrounded only a handful of senior players, one of which was not George, but the 46-cap forward holds no ill-feeling towards anyone responsible and will attempt to put back into the club what he says they have given him, having developed the boy from Welwyn Garden City into England’s first-choice hooker.
“I wouldn’t say I’m angry about it,” George added. “It’s difficult to put one word on it really because you go through these emotions when something else comes up, then you’re angry or upset but you find a way to find the positives out of it, and then something else happens and you go through it again.
“It's difficult, (Saracens) have shown a huge amount of loyalty to me and remorse in terms of what they have done and that is appreciated. I think it is right that the players don't take the responsibility. I think if you speak to every rugby player around, they don't think they are the ones at fault even though they are the ones whose names are in the papers a lot. They have been very open and honest to us and the frustration for us is the times where legally they can't tell us what is going on.
“But I don't feel let down. The things and opportunities that Nigel Wray has given to me as a person from the age of 17, he has invested so much time into me and love so I will be forever grateful for that.”
Both Allianz and Saracens confirmed that their eight-year sponsorship deal that was due to expire after the 2021/22 season will terminate this summer, meaning the club will lose their stadium naming rights holders along with the £2m per season that comes with it. “Allianz has taken the difficult decision to end its sponsorship of Saracens Rugby Club and stadium at the end of this season,” an Allianz statement read.
“Allianz intends to continue to be involved in the great work that the Saracens Sports Foundation does in their local community and wishes Saracens well in the future.”