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It’s not only in politics that a week is a short time. Ten days ago English rugby was in high spirits and fans looking forward with eager anticipation to winning the World Cup. Now after defeat by South Africa and the sight of some disappointed players boorishly declining to wear their runners-up medals comes the depressing news that Saracens, club champions of England and Europe, are in the dock for breaching the salary cap, or, perhaps more precisely, of finding a way round it by investing in companies set up by some of their leading players, among them the England captain, Owen Farrell, and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy.
Saracens are of course protesting innocence and appealing against the imposition of a heavy fine and a big points deduction, and it is possible their appeal will succeed. Yet from what one has read in the newspapers, complete exoneration seems unlikely, and perhaps the best they can hope for is a less severe sentence, a sharp rap on the knuckles and a warning about their future conduct.
Whatever the outcome it’s rotten publicity for the English game. One has some sympathy for Saracens owner, Nigel Wray. Ever since the game admitted professionalism a quarter of a century ago, he has bank-rolled Saracens and invested huge sums in the club. Thanks to him Saracens and their fortunes have been transformed. In the amateur era they were scarcely among the more famous or highly regarded of London clubs. They weren’t as glamorous as Harlequins, and they had, I think, produced fewer English internationals than clubs like Wasps, Rosslyn Park, Richmond and Blackheath. Now, thanks to Mr Wray’s money, enthusiasm, and commitment, they are the top dog.
Not surprisingly, the news of their present discomfiture has met with no sympathy from other clubs. Two at least – Exeter, their closest rival over the last few years, and Sale, who hold their own in the Premiership on a much smaller budget than Saracens, have been ready to say that Sarries have for some time been breaching the salary cap or at the very least bending the rules. No doubt there’s an element of schadenfreude in their response. But it’s understandable. Exeter have pointed out that they have this summer dispensed with the services of the try-scoring Argentinian Santiago Cordero because they couldn’t afford to retain him without breaching the salary cap. The former England captain, Chris Robshaw, who plays for Harlequins, says bluntly that Saracens “have been cheating to a certain extent,” harsh words from such a respected figure.
The salary cap is set at £7 million, although there are a couple of amendments which permit this to be exceeded somewhat. It is intended to ensure that there is a level playing-field, and that no club should be able – as football clubs are able – to “buy success”. It should also be seen in light of the fact that although, in many respects, the English Premiership has been a remarkable popular success, it still loses money and requires financial support from the RFU, the governing body of the English game.
Saracens point to their record of developing home-grown players, and this record has indeed been remarkable. There were eight Saracens players in the 23-man squad for the World Cup final, six of them in the starting XV. Yet this surely has little, if anything, to do with the matter in hand.