On Sunday, the scandal surrounding Saracens’ breach of the salary cap and co-investments with key players came to a head. After a 35-point reduction and £5.4 million fine in November for historic breaches, it was announced they had failed to get their house in order for the current season and would be relegated.
Saracens – the reigning league and European champions, with five Premiership titles and three Champions Cups – will not be part of the Gallagher Premiership for the 2020-21 season.
Tom Fordyce, the BBC’s Chief Sports Writer, likened it to if Sir Alex Ferguson’s peak Manchester United team had got the drop. Its repercussions will be enormous.
We have had plenty of scandals in sport before, of varying seriousness, from rugby’s own Bloodgate, to the Aussie cricket side’s sandpaper and Lance Armstrong’s doping, and rugby will recover. But because of the historic longevity, the seemingly covert and calculated nature and the number of people it will affect, this is a bitter pill to swallow for the sport.
It also feels particularly galling because Saracens, as a club, promised so much more. Whether or not you are a fan, they sold us a seemingly more-enlightened vision of what a rugby club could be. They worked hard to create an ethos which everyone involved at the club lived, both on and off the pitch. They saw themselves as a family – the wolfpack we have heard so much about. They worked hard to prepare their players for a life after the game and were active in their community.
And while they did all that, they didn’t forget about the rugby. They rotated their squad, seeming to offer a better balance of minutes played than some teams; they invested in their academy and brought through promising young talent on a regular basis; they were smart and pragmatic in their gameplay and developed the core of the current England test side. And crucially, they won. A lot.
When you compared them to a club like Leicester Tigers, who seem trapped in the past both in terms of their governance and reliance on historic glories to give them their identity, Saracens were the polar opposites. A modern-day rugby club.
To see that undermined is incredibly frustrating. They are tainted. No matter what conversation you have about Saracens from now on, if you try and point to the good they have done, the response will always be ‘well, they didn’t play fair did they?’
It will be felt on a personal level for all the employees who worked so hard to help bring success and were completely in the dark about any of this. Some may have to leave as the club tightens its belt for a season.
There is a slim defence to be made for Saracens. They seemingly spent vast sums of money on advice about the legality of their actions. It could be argued this a disagreement about the wording of the law. But would they have been better served simply talking to Premiership Rugby than racking up lawyer fees? It could also be suggested it is harsh to receive a second punishment when it must be incredibly difficult to rectify the situation mid-season after contracts had already been agreed. But they knew something was coming as far back as last March, if not the exact details.
I do not believe there was unfettered Machiavellian scheming – in the past, they have let players like Chris Ashton or David Strettle move on because they struggled to afford them. Rather, was this naivety or maybe hubris by some of those in charge, believing that what they were doing was right and everyone would come around to their way of thinking?
Regardless, moving forward, the club must improve its transparency. It has lost any trust and good faith, and will only begin to recover if it is honest about what exactly went on. Their former Director of Rugby, Brendan Venter’s staunch, and in my view myopic, defence of the club on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast only served to further muddy the water, as he claimed the club were only around £500,000 over the cap for this season, in comparison to the £2 million figure being touted around elsewhere. How can we draw a line in the sand if we don’t even know where the beach is?
This goes for Premiership Rugby too – we still haven’t seen the report, or the one from the previous investigation in 2015. Even Lord Dyson, the chair of the panel that found Saracens guilty, wants his full written judgment to be published. It is all too much cloak and daggers.
And we continue to need clarification about whether Saracens still need to trim their squad for this year. There are plenty more league games to go, with which they will have a say in other clubs’ fortunes. We need to get back to a level playing field.
Beyond the scandal itself, there is the question of whether their leading players follow them to the Championship. There are murmurs some of their biggest stars may stay, but it is a difficult situation. Players’ careers are short and for leading internationals, a season out of the Premiership – and lack of exposure to high-intensity games – will not only damage their England prospects, but also for the Lions tour to South Africa.
Overall, this may hamper established stars like Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje less, but it could be incredibly damaging for emerging prospects like Ben Earls or Max Malins. Worcester Warriors’ Chris Pennell was given assurances he would still be considered for England when he followed his club down, but he never featured again, his international career remaining on one cap and 90 seconds of rugby. However, interestingly, Eddie Jones has made a statement of intent by picking Josh Hodge of Newcastle Falcons as an apprentice player in this current Six Nations squad.
Loan deals could be an option, similar to Mark Wilson’s move to Sale Sharks. However, that was one player. If some of the Saracens squad did decide to move on, are there enough clubs with financial space in their own salary caps to accommodate a full team of established, high-earning Saracens players that might suddenly appear on the market? Probably not.
We could see the introduction of central contracts for some players, while a season of Championship rugby could allow for increased rest periods for some of the internationals if academy prospects are given greater game time. It could even work like the sabbatical years a number of southern hemisphere players have taken in recent times.
And frankly, it could give a shot in the arm to the Championship; perhaps drawing bigger crowds and greater media coverage for a struggling competition. Hey, we can still look for the silver linings.
In the short term, there will need to be some serious clearing of the air when England meet up for their first Six Nations training session. This shouldn’t be allowed to poison the squad or all the good work of Jones’ tenure to date.
But we cannot ignore that the fact that this is a sorry period for rugby. The fall from grace for England’s highest flyers is both shocking and sad, and its impact will be felt far and wide. To rebuild any trust, Saracens have a massive job on their hands.
By Henry Ker