Saracens have never courted popularity, but they have never been more isolated than now. Their Premiership rivals have welcomed the draconian 35-point penalty and £5m fine (which will rise if legal costs are awarded against them) slapped on the English and European champions for breaching the league’s salary cap regulations over a three‑year period.
The Exeter chairman, Tony Rowe, will call for Saracens to be relegated when the Premiership board next meets in January. The Harlequins captain, Chris Robshaw, not one given to overreaction, said he found it hard to take now that success was found to have been built on cheating. Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond – a former coach at Saracens – called on the club to remove the words “integrity” and “honesty” from their Allianz Park ground.
Chris Boyd, Northampton’s director of rugby, said a salary cap demanded sacrifices – although he also sympathised with Sarries’ predicament. They have attempted to find ways of dealing with the pay explosion that comes when academy products on small salaries quickly become England players on significant wages.
As holders, Saracens were due to be centre stage at the launch of this season’s European Champions Cup in Cardiff on Wednesday. Participating teams are obliged to send their head coach and captain (or agreed alternatives) to the event or face being fined, but they declined to attend, 24 hours after Premiership Rugby announced the result of a five-day hearing into the alleged salary cap breaches. Saracens claim they feared turning what was meant to be a look forward into a sideshow, but they dominated it anyway.
The points deduction, which initially dropped Saracens to the bottom of the Premiership on -26, was provisionally rescinded when the club announced it would appeal. Saracens had based their defence on a contention the cap had not been breached, because co-investing with players in businesses did not constitute salary. The club also claimed there had been no attempt to mislead in making financial arrangements with leading players, but the next step will be to challenge the legal validity of the cap under competition law.
It may take a high-court judge to rule on that, but the club has grounds for appeal on “procedural unfairness”. The 35-point deduction had to be agreed by the Rugby Football Union which, even though it apparently received advice that the wording on the Premiership’s salary cap regulation was “sloppy”, did not withhold its consent or even refer the matter to the professional game board. It decided the matter should be left to the clubs, a decision that may come to haunt the governing body, should the club that provides England with its core group, and which has long had a policy of developing homegrown players, loses its elevated status.
There were nine Saracens players in the wider England squad that reached last week’s World Cup final, including Elliot Daly and Jack Singleton, who have yet to play for the club after signing in the close season. Four came through the academy system; Ben Spencer signed as a 19-year-old from Cambridge and the Vunipola brothers joined when they were 20. Bath, one of the most vocal clubs against Saracens in Premiership meetings, had five England players in Japan: three who joined from London Irish and none of whom they developed.
Champions Cup organisers believe Saracens will soon begin deregistering players from the group stage, beyond Liam Williams and Alex Goode, who will not play again until the start of the Six Nations at least. Having lost the hearing, Sarries have to trim the wage bill to avoid breaching the cap again this season. It is too risky to wait until the outcome of an appeal that may not be heard for months.
When players such as Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje came through the club’s system, they were paid a nominal wage. Both were capped early and their salaries increased significantly. The club’s owner, Nigel Wray, who took over at the start of the professional era in 1995, has long raged at the failure of the salary cap to properly compensate clubs who face pay explosions after serving the national cause. The policy allows for the first £50,000 of a homegrown international’s salary to be excluded from the cap, and the £228m deal between the Premiership and the RFU means wages are subsidised. All clubs benefit, even if they do not have a single player in the England squad.
Then there is the issue of welfare. The chances are that even if Rowe gets his wish and Saracens are relegated, their tightly knit group of players would remain, potentially suspending their England careers. One club owner complained recently he was looking to get rid of a big-name signing who had hardly played because of injuries. There was no consideration of the player’s future or the fact his inactivity was involuntary. That does not happen at Saracens.
It does not excuse their failure to clear schemes such as the co-investment programme with the Premiership before going ahead with them, no matter that they were not hidden. Four years ago, Saracens were among a number of clubs being investigated for salary cap breaches, but no action was taken because there was an acceptance more than a few were at it. The same outcome had been reached in 2010 when those abiding by the cap were found to be in a small minority.
There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the air this week. Where will the £5m fine go? Yet to be decided, but the chances are it will be shared out between the other 12 Premiership Rugby shareholders. Yes, Saracens have been found to be in breach of the cap, but were they bending the rules rather than breaking them? Under the two marquee-player stipulation, there is no cap on a club’s wage bill.
As for the club’s success being tainted, the players would very probably have stayed anyway, just as they did at Wasps in the 2000s when they could have earned more elsewhere. It is a club that looks out for its players, as well as looks after them. Wray will not want to walk away, but if he did, England would be the first casualty.
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