A few weeks after Saracens 35-point deduction and a fine of more than €6.4 million for breaching the salary cap former Ulster centre Darren Cave mused out loud on radio.
“You never, ever write Saracens off. They have a real siege mentality. The more you write them off, the more you hate them, the more you call them cheaters and tell them their medals should be taken off them.”
Cave had a point. The Premiership club are the team we love to hate, a kind of touchstone side where one rub magically draws animus. And Saracens, they offer a smorgasbord of reasons for them to feel unloved, for all to wish them a life of early European exits, which they haven’t accepted.
Saracen success, that nurtures loathing too. While the most disliked club in European rugby may hang resentment like a laurel, a self-affirming trophy, the message they send to those who are hostile is that they simply do not care. Indifference is an energy.
They are different gravy to most teams. And straight shooting Cave was saying what many listeners were thinking prior to Saracens' visit to Thomond Park last December. Then as now the tag of most hated, loathed, detested, cursed, abominated, shunned team in rugby followed like an ever-present contrail. Hate seems histrionically over the top. Yet it's the world they use themselves.
When he spoke out the club had just ended the worst week of their peripatetic existence after the point deduction and fine. The "heavy-handed" punishments that were described by the English Premiership club's chairman Nigel Wray as "absolutely devastating" was first appealed then dropped.
Still a couple of weeks later Saracens were beating Gloucester 21-12 in their Premiership meeting as dozens of fans waved bundles of fake money.
Forwards coach Alex Sanderson, doubling down, confronted the issue, declaring that his players mainlined the vitriol and thrived on it. But the Gloucester fans' reaction reflected the sizable hump the rugby community had taken. At the end of the match the former England backrow, was pursued down the touchline. With the deft touch of a wrecking ball a single gesture silenced them. He pointed to the scoreboard. A dagger through their whiney hearts.
That’s it though. The scoreboard. Sanderson, then showing the naughty step had become a safe space quoted a famous American pop star to make his point.
"In the words of Taylor Swift the haters are going to hate, hate, hate and the players are going to play, play, play," the 40-year-old told BT Sport referring to the American star's hit Shake It Off. "We have used the negative energy directed at us this week and turned it on our opponents. People may hate us but we do not care."
If the salary cap breach was the most recent reason for people including Exeter chairman Tony Rowe, whose side had lost the previous two Premiership finals to Saracens, to hate them, it was not the only reason. The club had posted their ability to flatline in the popularity stakes many years before that.
In a 2016 English rugby messaging board designed to attract similar voices into a conversation based on the theme “Why we love to hate Saracens” a contributor named Andy opened several strands of opinion.
It might only be a snapshot from likeminded rugby fans. But it is in the public consciousness where attitudes germinate. It’s in the terraces and stands where the reputations of teams are built and on social media trashed. The Saracens image has emerged organically from the pub and stadium from the perceived notions of ordinary fans on how the club conducts itself.
"I just find everything they do has to be in your face and over the top," posted Andy. "From cheating the salary cap, to cherry picking the top young talent around the prem a few years back by waving the cheque book around (Billy V, Hodgson, Strettle to name a few).
“The crowd boo every decision that goes against them and are pretty unreasonable, and with Edwards (Andy) they were always putting it out there, stirring things up and being generally disrespectful. Since they got their South African wealth they have become bullies and with a win at all costs attitude with the most boring, unimaginative game of attrition.”
Another contributing fan named Doog was more old school. “There does seem to be an overtone of arrogance about the whole Saracens set-up, something that appears at odds with Rugby’s core values,” he says before asking: “is it just the style of play, the ‘something special’ marketing nonsense?”
The narrative of shiny and new, of corporate and gimmicky, of brutal and cynical is a hard one to redirect. Saracens were one of the first clubs to pioneer a model truck bringing on the kicking tee for Michael Lynagh. You could buy a pint with your phone.
The commercial decisions seemed brash and visible and their expediency driven ethos flowed into the team. Grinding respect. A hard-edge team of bullyboys and Paul Gustard’s ferociously efficient wolf pack were reasons to admire. But only in another team in another city. Not Saracens.
Beckenham Bandit, another post from a fan from over four years ago, was more concise in his summing up.
“Reasons to dislike Saracens. Style of play. Their money is no object ownership model. Crass and tacky marketing. The behaviour of their players. Farrell Jnr, Ashton, Wigglesworth etc.”
There is a running irony at play but not so much as to deter the images or opinions that have already taken root in people's heads. Mercenary Saracens, who unashamedly flicked bundles of notes in front of the big name players and offered them ownerships of coffee shops and property investments as a way around declaring their actual income, also have one of the best academies in rugby. It is as highly regarded as that of Leinster.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 season the website Rugbypass did a survey into the 711 players they reckoned would be available to Premiership clubs.
From the 12 Premiership sides as well as London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie, which together made up 14 clubs that ran full academy programmes, a clear idea of the most productive academies in the competition emerged.
There were 465 players from Premiership academies in the competition, accounting for just over 65 per cent of the total. Saracens were at the top along with Sale Sharks with 57.4 per cent of their squad home grown, or 35 academy graduates in a squad of 61 players.
What is more financially prudent than growing your own. But the negative force field that surrounds the club is built less on a streamlined conveyor belt than the enduring questions of how counterfeit, how phony. Almost every rugby player cheats on the pitch for edge. Being caught going commando with your pants down as Saracens were is of a different magnitude.
In the early days the buy-ins were Francois Pienaar, Philippe Sella, Schalk Burger and Lynagh. More recently Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola were among those snared in the salary cap debacle and relegation of a club that won the Premiership four of the last five seasons.
A disciplinary panel, led by Lord Dyson, accepted that Saracens' breaches of the regulations were "not deliberate" and advised against relegation. But they could not prove they were able to comply with the salary cap this year, and chose to be move down a division rather than open past financial records for a full forensic audit.
Elective surgery ruled out. The decision to sidestep the audit was revealing. The guys who prefer to pay for their cold pies and warm beer with real money sensed bluffers at work.
Saracens were found to have breached the salary cap in three consecutive seasons. In 2016-17 the overspend was more than €1.21 million, in 2017-18 over €107,750 and in 2018-19 €996,130.
The belief is financial doping bought Saracens to their current position. Park that. What it actually did was reach into the pockets of the players with whom they were competing for championships and cups. Latter day, metaphorical, pickpockets.
For every Saracens success there was a lost match win bonus for someone else, a lost championship win bonus for another team, a lost increase in sponsorship because in every league and cup in every country it’s a zero sum game, lots of losers, one champion.
An argument can be made that Exeter, who lost three – 2016, 2018 and 2019 – of the last four Premiership finals to Saracens, were defrauded. Similarly Racing 92, Clermont and Leinster, who lost to Saracens in three of the last four European finals have . . . well, Leo Cullen doesn't do bitter, rage or spasms. That would have been Cheika.
It was former England captain Chris Robshaw who bundled Saracens in with the toxic duo of athletics and cycling and a concept of ingrained cheating. In that grouping all of rugby is tarnished. Resentment rises.
“We accept the hate we are going to get. But we think it is misplaced,” said the quiet spoken director of rugby Mark McCall.
Ho hum. And here we are now, Leinster facing what Exeter have so often, a Saracens but without suspended Owen Farrell, the England outhalf now asking rugby to believe his tackle technique is "a work in progress".
With 83 England caps and four with the Lions, an 18-year-old Wasps replacement outhalf Charlie Atkinson knocked out cold and concussed and a 28-year-old's tackle technique that is "a work in progress".
Nobody can know the legacy there for Atkinson. It was an unwanted addition to Farrell’s body of work and although judged to be a five-week unintentional foul, like Burger in his rugby thug heyday it chimed with Saracens hard, edgy, winning culture and another layer of Saracen enmity added.
Pantomime villains or misunderstood, they have carved out their own niche. All their own work. The team people love to hate.