Saracens’ fall from grace is a bitter pill for rugby

Michael Rhodes

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

33 thoughts on “Saracens’ fall from grace is a bitter pill for rugby

  1. Yep, its a godawful mess.
    At the heart of it is a club who systematically and repeatedly cheated.
    That’s the bottom line: the club acted badly and sought to create a significant advantage over their rivals by flouting the rules.
    They have damaged themselves, the League and will cause major issues for the national side and individual players. It will take a lot of untangling.
    I wouldn’t give PRL a free pass either. They have been asleep at the wheel and should have acted a lot sooner. It wasn’t as if the warning signs weren’t there for a number of years.
    A healthy and cleansing dose of transparency is what is now needed. PRL’s governance has been shown to be inadequate, and there is an urgent need to review how the Premiership is being run.
    The game must learn from this grim episode.

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    1. Systematically and repeatedly cheated yes but more damagingly repeatedly lied about it even once they had been caught with their pants down to the point that no one still knows the extent of the issue. Was it just co-investments that was at fault or was there other issues, and if it was just the co-investments then why are they still over the cap

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  2. What an utter s*** show. To paraphrase England Rugby CEO Bill Sweeney, no one comes out of this smelling like roses.
    Saracens have been caught and I think one of the main reasons they have had the book thrown at them twice is Wray’s initial lack of contrition. Had he apologised in November, they may have escaped any further sanctions after the initial fine and points deduction. I echo the empathy towards younger players and staff who surely had no hand in this.
    For all Brendan Venter’s grumblings he raised a very valid point, one echoed by Jeff Probyn, that PRL have handled this terribly. There was never anyway that Saracens were going to become compliant within a season. Whether they were £2m or £500k over, there is no way to cut the wage bill that quickly when players have, specifically at Saracens, longer term contracts. Add to this the fact that any payouts to end contracts early also count to the cap. It seems extremely reactionary to relegate Saracens for failure to comply when this was almost inevitable. The points and fine should maybe have been a line in the sand, but a mixture of Wray’s initial response and the likelihood of Saracen’s survival this season forced PRL hand. This, imo, is extremely unprofessional; in no other environment would a governing body be able to hand out a sanction, and then add to that sanction for essentially the same offence. It seems akin to the Japanese prosecution adding to Ghosn’s charges again and again (I think this is probably a bit extreme so apologies).
    On the topic of the legal advice, this is the standard practice of any business. If you don’t have expertise in-house, you seek advice on the matter. This isn’t a novel concept. The fact that PRL initially stated that this was an accidental breach suggests there was a difference of opinion but the incident wasn’t malicious. For PRL to then backtrack and lump Saracen’s with fine and points deduction shows how they misjudged the owners and public’s reaction to the report. It also seems as though PRL are covering their arses for not considering the possibility of co-investments as a means of salary.
    The main issue I have with PRL is how reactionary they have been to salary cap in general. We learnt last week that a DM journalist dug into this in her spare time…what were PRL doing??? How did it take her ~2 years to discover something PRL should have regulated from the off??? Asking Saracen’s to open their books is, imo, too little too late. If PRL were serious about this they would demand full access to all club accounts prior to the start of the season to ensure compliance.
    And now the PRL CEO is trying to divert all of the attention on to Saracen’s. Saracen’s need to own the catastrophic error they have made, but PRL also need to give answers as well.

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    1. Also gd pt regarding cap compliance by end of jan. Seemed that Saracens made little effort to do so, but yr comments seem to counter or mitigate this. If this latter demand was unreasonable, why don’t Sarries take PR to court? Would their books then subject to exposure & do they have reasons to avoid this? Mmm.

      1. They had offloaded Williams and by the sounds of it Kruis was off to Japan as well, whether the latter stays or goes is yet to be seen. Maybe a case of not biting the hand that feeds you, Saracen’s need to appear to be contrite and legal action doesnt really say “we’re sorry”.
        It does all seem to stink a bit, Saracen’s supposedly agreed to a year-end audit but refused a 3-year forensic audit on the grounds that all other clubs should be subjected to the same treatment.
        If you can Don, give a listen to House of Rugby. Haskell and Tindall give their reasons to why Saracen’s wouldn’t want to be subjected to a full audit.

        1. As has been obvious I’m appalled by Saracens’ actions. As fair play & justice were my drivers, weren’t PRL perpetrating malicious prosecution of tort by demoting Saracens due to their non compliance with the salary cap by the end of Jan? As Saracens seem to have had little or even no chance of meeting the Jan deadline, haven’t PRL been hypocritical & downright wrong with this apparently unattainable time demand of Saracens? Relegation itself may or may not have originally been an appropriate punishment, but by belatedly making it an additional penalty, surely PRL have undermined their own credibility & position with this spurious action. Wouldn’t it have been better & more appropriate to have stripped Saracens of their fraudulently gained titles?

  3. There’s another possible scenario here, whereby rugby just moves on without Saracens. Yes they have contributed a lot, but they also cheated. If their stars want to guarantee England and Lions etc., they can simply move to other Premiership clubs. Without these stars, I’m sure the investors will also move on. There will have to be some tightening of belts, but that’s ultimately what this is all about, right?

    Re. the impact of Sarries in the Championship: Bristol have spent significant time down there recently, and draw much bigger crowds than Sarries. I didn’t see much evidence of a “shot in the arm” then. It’s an undeniable fact that almost all the Championship clubs are relatively small, both in terms of support and budget. The rift between this level and the Premiership remains huge, and the RFU are doing precious little to address it.

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    1. Just to clarify what I meant by shot in the arm, I wasn’t talking about the crowds at Allianz Park, but that it might help draw crowds at places like Doncaster, Jersey, Bedford, Ealing etc if half a dozen England internationals/Lions rock up to play. For despite Bristol’s bigger loyal home fanbase, most of their players (apart from maybe someone like Piutau) I don’t think would be as big a draw as Farrell, Vunipola, Itoje, Daly etc? But just guessing obviously

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      1. Henry, Do you seriously think that Saracens England players, plus their other internationals, will play in the Championship? Owen Farrell and Itoje turning out at Cornish Pirates or London Scottish next season. I really cannot see that. They and everyone else with serious international ambitions will be off, either on a permanent or a temporary basis to play regularly at the highest level. Next season it will be the young players who will stay, plus a few old troupers like Barritt, Wigglesworth and Barrington who will make up the side.

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        1. I don’t know. This was purely hypothetical. I started out thinking ‘no chance’ but am increasingly less sure. Some big names followed Harlequins down in ’05. It will depend a lot of what Jones says to them and whether he is prepared to pick them from the Championship. A lot of them are on long contracts and they won’t have relegation clauses, so it might not be as simple as just saying ‘I’m off’.

          The rumors are that Farrell has said he won’t be quitting and I certainly think it will be a bit of a sheep mentality. I.e. if Farrell and a couple of the others confirm they will stay, the majority will. As soon as a few say they are off, the others will scramble to follow suit.

          1. This is assuming Saracens actually want to keep him. If it were me he would be one of the first names I would be looking at to offload. Saracens wont get back into the prem if they’re still over the cap and he eats up a lot of their budget. I can only see him staying if he agrees to a pay cut.

  4. Sarries got what they deserved for cheating, massively, over a prolonged period of time. Simple as that.

    I have been somewhat surprised by the overall love in that the press seem to have for the club, even after they’ve been exposed for cheating the other clubs and their supporters out of their dreams and silverware. I feel most sorry for Exeter in this respect.

    In this article you have bemoaned the fact that Sarries are going down despite all of their titles (bought illegally), they rotated their squad for the benefit of the players (yes, because they could do so as they had much higher quality bought illegally), that they developed their academy (its much easier to attract quality young players to an academy for a successful team (success as a result of cheating)), prepared their players for life after the game (yes, with illegal investments), they won a lot (yes, why was that?).

    I have been saying on this forum as well as others for several years that there was no way that Saracens could fit that many British and Irish Lions, let alone other internationals, in one squad without going over the salary cap. Finally the truth has come out, or at least part of it (we wait for the PRL report) and I struggle to feel sorry for anyone involved with the club. They all either knew, or would have guessed that something fishy was going on but kept their mouths shut.

    The supporters, I can feel sorry for in the main, although there appear to be some in denial still, as it wasn’t their fault. But even they must have guessed that something wasn’t quite right.

    Anyway, the fall out will be interesting, with probably some one off, one season arrangements for England players ratified by the RFU I expect.

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  5. At last, the news is that the report into the salary cap breaches will be released which means we can put an end to all the speculation an assumption

  6. Thing is that Saracens still don’t own responsibility for their actions. They won’t open up their accounts for forensic scrutiny, Ed Griffiths has only apologised for ‘errors’ made, they were let off the hook 5 yrs ago for the same deliberate salary breach offence & they didn’t trim their still in breach wage bill by offloading players in deadline Jan. Hence demotion. They are taking the piss. They’d rather go down, knowing they’ll come up next yr when all this may gave blown over. This is continuing corruption. Saracens have damaged themselves, the game & England. For the sake of rugby & themselves they need to come absolutely clean, but they won’t do this, so the canker remains. All this stuff about community spirit etc & so on espoused by Jones of The ST, Venter & even our v own Stuart from here, is a separate issue. Laudable though it may all be, it is all underpinned by systematic yrs of cheating. One doesn’t redress the balance of the other. Basically, a case of double standards. In the interests of justice & as a future warning to all, Saracens should also lose their titles.

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  7. Ok so it looks like the main beneficiary of the cap breaches was Itoje who received a £1.6m investment for 30% stake in his image rights company which was at least twice the market value for those shares, as well as £95k payments for hospitality appearances he never made and a £250k investment in his business. All this so they could pay him a lot under the going rate for a player of his calibre to keep them within cap.

    if you are telling me that Itoje was not complicit in this then you are either an idiot or a liar

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    1. Would be careful when stating market value. The rights were valued by a big 4 accountancy firm so what makes you think this is less valid than the valuer used by PRL?

      Its very interesting that had these all be classed as ‘equity investments’ then they would have been approved by salary cap manager. Clearly a blindspot in PRL’s salary cap regulations if these could have been allowed.

    2. I am sure you are right Leon, you usually seem to be well informed, but I would love to know where you found this information. Not exactly highly publicised I would imagine.

      1. Read the Sky News article summarising the report. Apparently they’ve obtained a copy and have published the main points re co-investments and actual salary overspend.

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  8. What worries me is the impact of this scandal on the culture and ambiance of the England squad now in camp,the relationships between Sarries and non Sarries players which must be affected as will be respect for Farrell as captain.This is a distraction from the task of winning GS.How little or great the impact time will tell but this + some bizarre selections it does not bold well.We may easily start with 2 defeats

  9. Well the report has leaked and as far as I’m concerned it hasn’t changed anything.

    Saracens were accused of breaking the salary cap, Saracens were found guilty of breaking the salary cap,
    Saracens were punished for breaking the salary cap,
    Saracens don’t seem to do anything about it and claim to be under the cap,
    Saracens admit they wont be under the cap,
    Saracens get punished again.

    As far as I’m concerned all this leak has done is make some players actions look worse.

    Saracens will spend a season in the championship (it doesn’t actually say in the rules that it’s 2) unless they somehow blow it and don’t win the league.

    It’s probably best for them because at least they can use that time to sort the salaries out and make sure they’re not over the cap again.

    Some players will get fired and some will move on and perhaps some will take pay cuts to stay. Who knows.

    I can understand why they got the punishment upgraded to relegation. Playing this season with the same squad was just winding everyone up and when they admitted they wouldn’t be under this year it sealed things for them. It can be argued that they already stopped Gloucester progressing in Europe with a side built on an unfair advantage over them.

    1. its interesting because the report was leaked (unredacted) once Sarries gave their permission for it to be published but before the redacted version was sent by PRL today

  10. I just have to laugh in exasperation. Having read the report, it’s interesting that it upholds the breaches, but doesn’t comment on motives. PRL’s SCM comes out looking very competent – Sarries and PRL look much more incompetent.

    It seems, when it comes to money, our sport has always been a bit awkward. Firstly we have the schism because London teams didn’t like being beaten by Northern semi-pros. Then we decide to allow player payments in the 90s because of shamateurism. Now we have, what, sham-professionalism?

    The report upholds the salary breaches, but really, for English domestic rugby to survive this, we probably need: a) a full investigation into all club finances over the past few years B) restructure PRL so that there is more independent governance and transparency c) a more wide discussion in the sport as to what is the purpose of a professional top domestic league (players to make money, develop for international selection, love of sport) and where the balance is.

    But I doubt any of that will happen…

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    1. Agree with your three point plan. I cannot believe that Sarries are the only team doing this. Whether it be via co-invests or through other means, I am certain other clubs are cooking the books.
      Unfortunately in sports organisations where the owners of the teams have an influence over the governing body, there will be a lack of impartiality and objectivity. Look at the NFL; the owners choose the commissioner and he is essentially a puppet to their will. The owners should have no influence over PRL and there should be no representation on the main board. Of course they should have input, but this should be taken as advise.
      Like Football, Rugby is becoming a business. The players obviously love playing the game but in a world where money is being generated through commercial aspects of the sport, why shouldnt the players be able to earn a fair share. After all, theyre the ones putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.

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  11. I feel quite naive, I thought Saracens success was due to Wray emulating sir Clive’s strategy with England when he came in in 98.
    You play for England so you’ll get the best Doctors, Nutritionists, Psychologists, the best hotels, crèche for the kids, New York trips for the wives e.t.c, thus creating a successful culture.and team.
    Guess with Wray, that was just rhetoric, the substance being financial reward for the player.
    This hasn’t been handled well at all by the Prl and in turn the RFU.

  12. Not a Sarries fan at all but actually in a way feel that they are somewhat hard done by here. I suppose it depends where you see the priority of rugby being. For me I have always been country over club, to that end, Sarries have produced a large quantity of England players (largely either from their own academy or brought in before International recognition) and used their experienced garnered in top level European competitions to enable them to excel for their International side. Essentially then, they are punished for having to tie these England players down to big contracts because that is their market value. Yet… it is okay for Bristol to sign several highly paid International players and contribute nobody to the England squad. I may be mistaken, but am I right in thinking Radradra doesn’t count towards the cap because he is a ‘marquee’ player.
    For me, the rules need looking at. Clubs should get a higher dispensation in the salary cap for having EQPs. Scrap the marquee player system, we need to be developing our own players not other nations.

    1. Well, that may be restraint of trade & this Northern drain has been going on for yrs now. Hartley, Vunipola x2, Tui, Teo, Roco, Harrison & so on for instance. Also depends on what you mean by ‘developing our own’. Does it mean after a residency period? Does it it mean their being born here? Not so straight fwd.

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