Mark McCall’s public confession that Saracens may have to sacrifice the Champions’ Cup in order to preserve their domestic status will have fallen on stony ground all over Europe.
The image of the durable English heavyweights surrendering their title without throwing a punch, the way Sonny Liston did against the then Cassius Clay more than half a century ago, is too implausible to envisage.
Despite the severity of their punishment for serial salary cap offences, the holders have never been in the business of rolling over.
No matter what their 51-year-old Ulster man has said on the subject in his role as Director of Rugby, McCall’s men are not about to start now. Since first emerging as contenders a decade ago, no handicap has ever been too great a burden.
A 35-point deduction, serious enough to jeopardise their English Premiership status, will be seized within the Wolfpack’s lair as fortifying the them-and-us mentality. Having poured a whole lot more besides sweat and tears into their recurring European success, the punishment comes with the club on the threshold of trying to make theirs the longest-running of all rugby empires, longer than those built by Leinster and Toulon.
The Irish exponents of Total Rugby were the first to conquer Europe three times in four seasons, their French successors the first to do it three times in a row.
One more unbeaten campaign and the former parks' club from north London will be the first to do it four times in five attempts.
Public ridicule of their predicament, as demonstrated last weekend at Gloucester where home fans waved fistfuls of fake £50 notes, may do wonders for Abba in royalty fees for their hit Money, Money, Money but it won’t bother a multi-national brigade renowned for being as tough as old boots.
The title defence beginning in Paris on Sunday will take them to Swansea in the New Year for a crack at the low-flying Ospreys and Limerick next month for another attempt to put the record straight at Thomond Park.
They’ve been there three times in the pool competition and lost all three, none more narrowly than the first 20 seasons ago when Keith Wood’s late try gave Munster the prospect of an improbable reprieve, one duly secured by Ronan O’Gara bouncing the conversion over off an upright.
How many, or how few, of a 14-man World Cup contingent drawn from South Africa, Wales, Scotland, Argentina and USA as well as England will be on parade in Paris remains to be seen.
That there will be no shortage of big names volunteering for a swift return to the front can be taken for granted.
It is, after all, a re-match of the 2016 final in Lyon when seven Owen Farrell penalties trumped three from Johan Goosen. After almost a fortnight of righteous public indignation extending to hysterical calls for the club to be stripped of its titles, Racing will not need anyone to advise them that their opponents will come armed with something money cannot buy – an unbreakable readiness to bust a collective gut for the cause.
While some within the English game, and beyond, have not been slow to condemn Saracens’ domestic titles as tainted, nobody can dare say the same about their European Cups.
There is no salary cap and therefore no questioning the legitimacy of their right to sit where Leinster sat not that long ago, at the summit of the club game.
Their cosmopolitan band of World Cup warriors are drawn from South Africa (Vincent Koch), Wales (Liam Williams, Rhys Carre), Scotland (Sean Maitland), Argentina (Juan Figallo), USA (Titi Lamositele) as well as their English brigade, increased to eight by Elliot Daly’s transfer from Wasps.
As if that’s not alarming enough for all those aspiring to knock them off their perch, McCall’s men will relish the prospect of responding to adversity on an unprecedented scale. They have been in tight corners before but never one as tight as a £5m fine and being docked roughly one third of the maximum points on offer throughout the 22-match Premiership campaign.
No English club has dominated Europe as Sarries have done over the last three seasons. Their record of three defeats in 34 Champions’ Cup ties provides a lavish source of inspiration for a team built on an insatiable hunger to keep winning the big prizes.
Their mental fortitude is about to be tested as never before but, when it comes to finding a way, nobody at club level finds one more consistently. "We have never shouted from the rooftops about what we’ve won," says McCall. "It has been more about what we’ve built and the relationships I have with our coaches, staff and the playing group is something I cherish. I guess the big challenge for us now is to see how we respond to this…" Over the last nine seasons only five clubs have beaten them – Leinster, Munster, Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont who have done so on no fewer than seven occasions. Should Racing have added their name to that elite list by Sunday evening, the holders will still have some margin for further error but not much, irrespective of the outcome of their appeal.
Losing in Limerick would raise a serious question over their capacity to qualify for the last eight, something they have done without fail for the last nine seasons.
"Despite the appeal, we have to plan for the worst-case scenario," says McCall. "So, to avoid relegation is now the priority ahead of the European Cup."
Their position offers so little room for manoeuvre that the most likely means of qualifying for next season’s competition will be to win this one.
The galvanising effect upon a champion squad of Saracens’ calibre cannot be underestimated.
Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of what it takes to win the tournament will not be one bit surprised if McCall has drawn up contingency plans designed to finish the season by avoiding relegation from the Premiership and retaining the Champions’ cup on successive weekends.
Nobody’s ever had to think about a double like that, let alone devise the means to achieve it.
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