Former England captain Chris Robshaw has branded the financial actions of Saracens Football Club as "cheating."
The Premiership and European champions have pledged to fight a 35-point deduction and £5.36 million (€6.2m) fine after they were found to have breached salary cap regulations.
“Call it what you want. It is cheating,” said Harlequins captain Robshaw at the Heineken Champions Cup launch in Cardiff. “It is not a good situation for our sport to be in. It is not a thing we pride ourselves on.
“When you look at cheating in athletics, when you look at cheating in cycling, when you look at cheating in baseball, for us as a sport we like to think our sport is cleaner and cleaner than everyone else. It is not anymore. It is not. We have to be realistic about that. As a sport we have got to take the damage that comes with that now. I am sure it will be like that for a while. It is not going to be easy for our sport to move forward.
“I know the World Cup didn’t finish as [England] would have liked but look at the high it brought the country. And now we got some damage control to do.”
Saracens are expected to be fined for their non-attendance at Wednesday morning’s launch of the European rugby season.
When Robshaw was asked about the Independent Sports Resolutions committee establishing that Saracens failed to disclose payments to players - including current England captain Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers - in the past three seasons, he stated: "It's been one of those things where unfortunately years and years ago it's one where I think a lot of clubs took a pay out to be quiet about the incident. And now it is one of those things that has been spoken about for a long time amongst players and the wider public.
“We look at their squad and it is a big squad of international players. I don’t think you have to be a genius to work one of these things out. It looks like it is starting to be dealt with and hopefully it is going in the right direction. Hopefully we can get back to a level playing field. Because that is what the salary cap is about, isn’t it? Making sure everyone has a chance, everyone has the same level and we can compete and we have a competitive league.”
Robshaw was then asked how frustrating it is that the Premiership hasn’t been a ‘level playing field’ as Saracens captured the 2018 and 2019 titles.
“Saracens are the benchmark. Rightly or wrongly - from what they have done off the field - they have set the standard with their players, the way they play, what they won legally or illegally. It is tough to compete against. Look at everyone else battling to make salary caps especially when there are three or four injuries in one position. You might have an academy guy coming through who has never played.
“Again, it is trying to make the game more even.
“It is not great the game that we loved is in the world eye. The pinnacle of English rugby is illegal. I think it puts our sport in a very dangerous place. We are a sport that always claimed to be whiter than white, we would look down on football and look down on this and that, we would say how it is but we are like everyone else.”
Following Saracens no show in Cardiff on Wednesday morning, there was a general feeling of disrespect cast over the Champions Cup launch at the Principality stadium.
This is the second time Saracens have not turned up at European rugby’s main day for media and sponsors. They were fined £4,250 in 2010 when captain Steve Borthwick - now England forwards coach - went to Oktoberfest instead of the launch.
Almost every question to coaches and captains was about the defending champions financial methods to build a squad that has climbed to the top of northern hemisphere rugby.
"I think people's concern is that, even now, Saracens' argument for what they have done is they believe is okay because it's not captured by salary cap regulations," said Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter.
“I think the rest of the Premiership’s concern is, if that is your first response to the what’s happened, what you are basically saying is, we are not actually abiding by the fundamental basic principles of the salary cap, which is what we are supposed to be aiming to work within to create a level of fairness and competition in the competition. That is what we are supposed to have signed up to agree to.
“If your first response is ‘Ah yes, but these payments, investments, whatever they are, are outside the cap, but they are okay because the wording of the cap doesn’t catch them.’ Well, straight away, I think your concern is going to be: So what are you going to do, you are going to move on from this by finding another way of doing it that’s outside the wording of the salary cap.
“You are effectively asking for a review of this decision. So what are you saying? You want to continue to making payments outside the salary cap?
“You have got to do something here that will make people go ‘Well that is not what we are supposed to be doing.’
“We are not supposed to be trying to find loopholes and ways out of it. We are supposed to be finding ways where we all work within in for a bit of competition.
“I don’t feel any more uncomfortable playing against them now than I have ever done before,” Baxter added. “There can’t be many people within rugby circles who don’t think that the elephant is finally out in the open instead of being in the corner of the room.”