Saracens ruling a cloud hanging over entire English club game

Finding that Premiership champions breached salary cap could have major implications

Saracens chairman Nigel Wray celebrates with fans after winning the Premiership for the first time in 2011. Wray’s view has always been that every club should copy the Saracens model. File photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters

Saracens chairman Nigel Wray celebrates with fans after winning the Premiership for the first time in 2011. Wray’s view has always been that every club should copy the Saracens model. File photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters

 

How absolutely typical of rugby union. One minute the country is cheering on England in a World Cup final, the next they are reading that the pre-eminent club in the land have been on the fiddle. Not intentionally, say Saracens’ solicitors, but still enough to cop an unprecedented fine of £5.3 million and a draconian 35-point deduction should their appeal, which is already under way, fall on stony ground.

Never mind the nuances of the salary-cap breaches, the accounting small print or the protestations of the Saracens’ chairman, Nigel Wray. At best this is a PR car crash, just when Premiership Rugby is trying to woo a few floating World Cup voters to the club game. Roll up, roll up, come and watch a sport whose champions effectively stand accused of financial doping. It is not the best promotional strapline.

While not on the scale of the Melbourne Storm, who were found to have breached the salary cap in Australia’s NRL for five successive years, heavily fined and stripped of all the honours they had won between 2006-2010, the implications are wide ranging. If the points deduction takes effect this season, the chances of Saracens finishing in the top six and qualifying for Europe’s Champions Cup next season are nil. Saracens have been at pains to point out their 35-point punishment is suspended while the appeal takes place but, should it not be revoked, their title prospects will instantly disappear.

It is a significant story, if not a massive surprise. For months it has been an open secret that some jealous individuals within Premiership Rugby had plans for Nigel. Helping his players out by investing in their recently formed companies – Faz Investments, VunProp Ltd – is not illegal but has become problematic.

Does every one of Saracens’ successes, both at home and abroad, now have an asterisk?

Wray’s view has always been that every club should copy the Saracens model. How can the game, on the one hand, complain about careers being short and precarious and then complain when people like him try to help players plan for their futures?

The counterargument is equally valid. How fair is that to clubs in provincial towns and cities who cannot offer such inducements to players to join or stay put? The resale value of a penthouse in Gloucester city centre is not remotely comparable to a similar property in central London. How are the rest supposed to keep up when Saracens have such a massive inbuilt advantage? What is the point of a salary cap if the wealthier clubs flout it anyway?

If Saracens are confirmed to have pulled a fast one by not declaring everything, what about the trophies they have won in recent seasons? Does every one of those successes, both at home and abroad, now have an asterisk? Does it invalidate all the hours Mark McCall and his staff have put in? What implications does it have for their future recruitment?

Either way, for the eight Saracens players involved the England squad who lost Saturday’s World Cup final in Yokohama, it is a second heavy blow to the solar plexus inside three days.

Cynicism

Nor is there a shortage of cynicism floating about. Have Premiership Rugby deliberately opted to delay the decision until now with one eye on the possibility of the league being ringfenced at the end of this season? No more promotion and relegation would certainly suit new investors such as the private equity firm CVC who do not want their top draws cut adrift. This way Saracens could bump along for the remainder of this season, battered and embarrassed, but guaranteed to retain their Premiership status and compete in Europe.

The story looks destined to run and run. Exeter, last season’s beaten Premiership finalists, will be among those paying close attention, along with Saracens’ own supporters.

Without Wray and his loyal backing over 25 years, the club would not exist as a professional entity. They would not have developed so many England internationals, never blazed a trail for English clubs in Europe, never broken the mould in terms of their remarkable team culture. But was it all entirely kosher?

An asterisk currently hangs not just over Saracens but the entire English club game. – Guardian

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