Sport Writer Owain Pryce breaks down the saga that has shaken English rugby to its core and left the reputation of the best club in Europe in tatters
Saracens, European club rugby champions and winners of the English Premiership in four of the last five years, have been dealt a £5.36 million fine, and a 35-point deduction in the Premiership, for breaching the league’s salary cap regulations. The verdict, pertaining to the last three seasons, was decided by an independent panel, and is the greatest fine ever received by an English sports team. Some of England’s World Cup heroes, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy and MakoVunipola are among the players embroiled in this saga, the biggest to hit English rugby for at least a decade.
The issue surrounds the club’s owner, Nigel Wray, being involved in co-investments with the club’s top players. Critics say that this is how Saracens are able to afford such a star-studded team, as these extra incentives were not seen as being part of their salary, but help to convince players to remain at Alllianz Park.
This is not the first time that the salary cap has been under the microscope. In 2015, the Premiership turned a blind eye to financial breaches, under the impression that clubs such as Saracens would clean up their act. Despite this, many players, experts and fans have suspected that something was awry in the last few years. Saracens have become the dominant force in domestic and European club rugby, partly due to the superb quality and depth. A quarter of England’s 2019 World Cup squad will be playing for Saracens this season, as well as having big international stars such as World Cup winner Vincent Koch. An example of their squad depth is shown at full back, where they have England’s Elliot Daly, Wales fullback Liam Williams, as well as European Player of the Year Alex Goode.
The ruling throws up many issues. Thankfully, Saracens’ decision to withdraw their challenge to the sentence, which was announced on Monday, avoids a scenario where the story would overshadow the entire season. Yet the question surrounding the validity of the trophies won in the last three years by Saracens, two Premiership titles and two European crowns, remains. Although these titles will not be removed, they are certainly tainted in the eyes of many fans.
One point that has been brought into this story is that of player’s mental health. Some would argue that the purpose of these co-investments is to ensure that post-rugby, Saracens players would have businesses to step into and make the transition into the next stage of their life less stressful. It is known that the club are very good at educating their players for the future, but bringing the mental health debate into this salary cap breach is rather insensitive.
For starters, we all know that it is very sensitive topic, and linking them seems to be an attempt to justify breaking rules that they were fully aware of. Also, people across the sport will have lost their jobs because clubs have been unable to compete with Saracens.
The whole idea of the salary cap is to keep the league competitive, so having tilted the playing field in their favour over the last three years at least, Saracens have been affecting the other clubs around the country, potentially depriving opposition players of life-changing victories and opportunities.