Saracens salary-cap breach stamps an asterisk on a great club and the game

Robert Kitson
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Paul Harding/PA</span>
Photograph: Paul Harding/PA

How absolutely typical of rugby union. One minute the country is cheering on England in a World Cup final, the next it is 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 £5.3m and a draconian 35-point deduction should their appeal, which is already under way, fall on stony ground.

Related: Saracens docked 35 points and fined £5m for salary cap breach

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Never mind the nuances of the salary-cap breaches, the accounting small print or the protestations of 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 stand in effect 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 and 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.

What is the salary cap? Premiership Rugby introduced the salary cap in 1999 with the aims of ensuring a level playing field and maintaining a competitive, growing and financially sustainable league, preventing the clubs from the pitfalls of over-spending. The cap was increased from £6.5m to £7m before the 2017-18 season and will remain at this level until the end of the 2019-20 season. The ceiling includes dispensation for academy and injured players and effectively raises the possible spend to around £9m.

What have Saracens done? Premiership Rugby responded to allegations of a salary cap breach by carrying out a nine-month investigation. An independent panel was appointed in June. They have found Saracens failed to disclose payments to players in each of the last three seasons and that the club exceeded the ceiling for payments to senior players in that time. 

What did the panel look into? Premiership Rugby’s investigations were thought to have centred around owner Nigel Wray’s involvements in companies such as VunProp Ltd (Mako and Billy Vunipola), Faz Investments Ltd (Owen Farrell), Wiggy9 Ltd (Richard Wigglesworth) and MN Property Solutions Ltd (Maro Itoje). Wray has in the past argued that “investment is not salary” and likened the arrangements to his public support of coffee and brewing companies set up by players.

What happens now? The club say they are 'shocked and disappointed' and will lodge an appeal. The case is set to go to Sports Resolutions. PA

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 Wray. Helping his players out by investing in their recently formed companies – Faz Investments, VunProp Ltd – is not illegal but has become problematic .

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

The counter-argument 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?

Related: Saracens judgment is a spectacle of a sport robustly applying its rules | David Conn

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, in Europe 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 in the England squad who lost Saturday’s World Cup final in Yokohama it is a second heavy blow to the solar plexus inside four days.

Nor is there a shortage of cynicism floating about. Has Premiership Rugby deliberately opted to delay the decision until now with one eye on the possibility of the league being ring-fenced at the end of this season? No more promotion and relegation would certainly suit new investors like 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 over not just Saracens but the entire English club game.

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