Saracens plead their innocence but rugby union’s whole structure is on trial

Michael Aylwin
<span>Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Pioneering darlings of English rugby or hateful cheats? The verdict on Saracens continues to swing to impressively wild extremes, even by the standards of a sport that, 24 years into its professional era, has still to settle on anything like an equilibrium.

Following the Premiership’s decision to puff out its chest and get macho all of a sudden on the matter of its salary cap, the assessment du jour is hateful cheats but, as usual, the boring truth lies somewhere in between.

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Saracens and their chairman, Nigel Wray, revealed in their respective statements that the judgment, which has not yet been widely accessible, found they had not “deliberately sought to mislead anyone or breach the cap”. If true, that makes the accusation of systematic cheating harder to stand.

In time the details of the specific infringements Saracens are said to have committed may be published. The Observer’s understanding is that the much-trumpeted joint ventures between Wray and his England stars, which have provoked such uproar, are not at issue. Some might not have been registered by Wray, for which the club have been fined and the man himself has apologised, but the practices themselves are legitimate in principle and do not contribute to Saracens’ alleged overspend.

Related: Hypocrisy is in the air as Premiership rivals turn their backs on Saracens | The Breakdown

That reported overspend, reckoned to be in the region of £2m over three seasons, relates to previous dealings between club or third parties and players. They are open to interpretation and their legitimacy or otherwise vehemently contested but they have been dealt with by the ruling, and are why Saracens will not have to unload any players. The regular salaries the club pays its players are within the cap.

The co-investment idea is permissible for as long as the investor pays the market rate for any shareholding, is exposed to the corresponding level of risk and collects any reward. Determining the level of that market rate, though, is where the trouble starts. If an investor pays more than the market rate into a venture, that overspend does count as salary. Independent analysts can arrive at very different assessments.

Wray is an inveterate investor. He has built his personal fortune by being uncommonly good at it. He genuinely believes he has done nothing wrong, so is unlikely to take this punishment like a good boy. If and when the first appeal fails on its narrow grounds, he will take the matter as far as a multimillionaire can. This will run and run, and the loser, as ever, will be the credibility of rugby union.

Meanwhile it is abundantly clear that the Premiership, like much of the rest of rugby, has had enough of Sarries being too clever by half. Saracens were one of two clubs who were issued with final, final warnings in 2015 after a litany of infringements against the cap over its 20-year history by several clubs, all of which were dealt with gently and in-house. A deal with the two offending clubs was struck that required every one of the 13 elite clubs to agree. One or two took a long time to come round. Now the backlash has been furious.

Self-righteousness is in the air. Even just the sight of players past and present railing against the “cheating” is unsavoury. It is the players’ salaries, after all, that are the problem. They are paid too much.

A good deal of sanctimony is dispensed regarding the undoubtedly punishing demands placed on players’ bodies and souls, how they are underpaid, if anything. But the market is brutally simple: if your industry cannot afford your salaries – and player wages are overwhelmingly the biggest cost for a sport perennially in deficit – you are being paid too much.

The real issue, though, is the governance of the sport in England. For all the attempts by Premiership Rugby to inject an element of independence, the organisation is run by millionaires who are competing against each other. No sensible strategic vision can be realised under those circumstances, nor measures implemented.

The salary cap is but one device commonly deployed by sports that are coherently governed, but such measures, when bought into properly, form a lattice of mutually reinforcing policies that lock clubs, players and investors into a strict framework.

Related: Saracens shake off salary cap taunts as Ben Earl punishes Gloucester

A salary cap is English rugby’s only concession to a regulated system. On its own it is weak. One flaw is that the players are not signed up to it. The first plank in any regulated system is a collective bargaining agreement that binds all parties, taking out of the equation any notion, still hanging over the current dispute, that a salary cap represents a restraint of trade.

An independent governing board, to whom the participants answer unreservedly, is the next plank. And from those two radiate all the other classic equalisation measures – salary cap, salary collar, minimum wage, player draft, differential funding, a closed league and so on.

The big American and Australian sports operate under a totally different culture from that of rugby in England (and France). The trouble for rugby is that its most powerful nations economically are set in a culture dominated by football. The world’s truly global sport is thus the only one that can even dream of mixing its professional and amateur games into the same messy system, while leaving the rest to market forces.

Most of rugby’s problems worldwide, let alone in England, lead back to this problem. Rugby thinks it can be like football, thinks sometimes it has a moral duty to be. But rugby is not big enough. Until an overhaul of its governance structures is implemented, crises such as the current will remain hardwired into the system.

Unholy Union: When Rugby Collided with the Modern World by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans is out now

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