Gerry Thornley: Exeter are dead right, Saracens should lose tainted titles

Chiefs have a chance of adding a memorable double in the coming weeks

The finals of both the 2019-20 Champions Cup and Premiership take place over the next two Saturdays and for the first time in seven seasons neither will feature Saracens. Instead, for the first time, Exeter will contest the pair of them. Both competitions are better off for that.

In the last six seasons, Saracens reached five Premiership finals, winning four of them, and four Champions Cup finals, winning three of them. But all those achievements are stained.

Granted, Lord Myners’s report into Saracens’ salary cap indiscretions – and Premiership Rugby’s ensuing fine of almost €6 million and deductions of 105 points in total – were for breaches covering the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, because that’s all that could be investigated.

In this time Saracens won two Premiership titles and two European Champions Cups. Last season, after beating Clermont in the 2017 European final and Exeter in the 2018 Premiership decider, they repeated their double of 2016 when defeating Exeter and Leinster in the two finals.


As this was the third time Exeter lost a final to a club who were found guilty of financial doping, or cheating, in the last four seasons, the Chiefs were entitled more than most to feel aggrieved, and they are.

This much is clear from a new book, due out next month, by the Guardian's rugby correspondent Robert Kitson, entitled: The Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of Exeter Chiefs. Extracts from the book were published in The Observer on Sunday and sympathy in the west country for Saracens, who will spend next season in the Championship, is in short supply.

Exeter's long-serving director of rugby Rob Baxter, who spent hours studying spread sheets so as to ensure the Chiefs stayed within the salary cap, notes that even breaches in the cases of a select few players in turn helped them keep all their other players.

In all of this Baxter is not alone in accepting that Saracens do many things well. They are a superbly coached side, have a brilliant academy system, have developed a strong and winning culture and do many fine things within their local community.

But ultimately Saracens accumulated trophies by assembling a squad no other club could afford, including Exeter, who by comparison are an honestly run club, and the only profit-making one in last season’s Premiership.

What is particularly galling for Baxter is that Saracens, who vowed to fight the initial fine and deduction, have never so much as hinted at an apology.

Indeed, a mass brawl between players from both sides when they met at Sandy Park last December was, according to Exeter players, instigated by a comment from Billy Vunipola to the home side's scrumhalf Nic White along the lines of: 'Unlucky, you haven't got a Premiership winner's medal."

Far from being apologetic in any way, this reflects a mentality within Saracens which, as Baxter put it, demonstrated they were quite happy to cheat in order to win titles and didn’t mind rubbing it in either.

There are also many monetary implications, as the Exeter flanker Don Armand highlights. Other players were being paid less than their Saracens counterparts, which in turn gave the latter far more financial security, especially with off-field property investments to ease them into retirement.

Players in clubs such as Exeter may have been released so the squad came within the salary cap. Armand also points out that having titles on a player's CV makes them more valuable commodities if they do move on, witness lucrative deals some departed Saracens players have secured in France.

All those trophies Saracens accumulated also helped earn their players more international recognition, and as Armand also points out, none of these career-changing events can ever be righted.

There are also the trophies which the coaches and backroom staff missed out on, and this stretches down throughout every employee and person involved in an entire professional organisation, not to mention the celebrations potentially denied the Exeter spectators, and others, who bought season tickets or match tickets or travelled to away games.

Outside of financial reward players play rugby to win matches and win trophies. More than anything, that’s what defines their careers. Unlike their amateur predecessors, they make unbelievable sacrifices in their pursuit of wins and trophies. Unlike their amateur predecessors, they hardly ever drink, save for end-of-season parties. Then, admittedly, no less than their amateur predecessors, understandably they do their damndest to make up for it.

For a very select few, if those end-of-season parties are in the immediate aftermath of securing a trophy, then the all day Sunday piss-ups are even more cherished. It makes all those punishing pre-seasons, all those dreary, wet, cold Monday mornings, and all those injury rehabilitation programmes, even more rewarding.

If a squad is cheated of them, they can never get those prized memories back. And in such a transitional entity as professional sport, no two finales to a season are ever made up of exactly the same personnel.

Among rival chairmen, Exeter's Tony Rowe, has been the most vociferous of Saracens' critics. He doesn't deny that Saracens deserved to win last season's final, but states that his club lost to a superior team which Exeter couldn't afford because they adhered to the salary cap.

Rowe also notes that his Saracens counterpart, Nigel Wray, cannot have been the only individual within that club who knew what was going on. Frankly, it's unbelievable.

There should forever be an asterisk beside Saracens’ Premiership title wins of 2017-18 and 2018-19. In fact, on Wikipedia’s page on the Premiership there are with the accompanying note: *Saracens were found to have breached salary cap regulations during denoted season.

Rowe still believes the Premiership should go further. Saracens were proven to have cheated and therefore those titles should be removed from their name. Rowe is not saying that Exeter would have won them, or even want them. But Saracens shouldn’t have them either. He’s right.

By extension, there's also a cloud over Saracens' three Champions Cup titles. Of course they deserved to beat Clermont Auvergne in the 2017 final, as they'd done against Racing the previous year, and they were also worthy winners against Leinster in the 2019 final and 2020 quarter-final.

Saracens would not have progressed into the Champions Cup for the last three seasons had their cheating been proven sooner.

That sticks in the craw too.