Why are rugby bosses calling for Saracens relegation?

Luke Bradshaw
Sports Writer
Saracens' Richard Wigglesworth (Credit: Getty Images)

Current and former bosses from Gallagher Premiership clubs have called for harsher sanctions to be imposed on Saracens following their salary cap breach.

Exeter’s Chief Executive Tony Rowe and Director of Rugby Rob Baxter both commented today, with Rowe demanding the London club be relegated. Former Harlequins Director of Rugby John Kingston also called for titles the club won to be stripped.

Speaking to BBC Radio Devon, Rowe said that the £5.36 million fine and 35-point deduction handed to the London club wasn’t “severe enough’.

The ruling comes after a nine-month investigation by an independent disciplinary panel into the business partnerships between a selection of Saracens players and club chairman Nigel Wray. 

What are Saracens accused of?

According to the investigation Saracens are accused of failing to disclose payments to players for three seasons – 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19 – and going over the cap by roughly £650,000 per season for three seasons. 

What have other clubs said?

Rowe said: "We, for a number of years, have suspected they've been infringing the salary cap. But I don't think the penalty is severe enough. You take away 35 points this year - they could still be in the semi-finals and could still end up at Twickenham [in the Premiership final].

Tony Rowe and Rob Baxter (Credit: Getty Images)

"It's the management that have totally flouted the rules and regulations, which has enabled them to put a squad on the pitch that we couldn't match. I feel a bit bitter about it because we were only just beaten. I'm not blaming the [Saracens] players, you can't blame the players.

"It leaves a bit of a nasty taste in my mouth - if you're in sport and you get beaten fair and square that's fine, but then to find out that your opponents have actually cheated, it's not good."

Asked what punishment he deemed suitable, Rowe said: "Relegation - in professional sport in America, if you're in breach of the salary cap you get thrown out completely."

In two of the three seasons concerned, Saracens beat Exeter in the Premiership final. At the Champions Cup launch today, Baxter was asked about the Saracens decision. 

Last summer, Exeter released Tom Lawday – a player that they developed through their academy – and Argentina international Santiago Cordero, because they couldn’t afford to keep them and comply with salary cap regulations. 

Santiago Cordero of Exeter Chiefs (Credit: Getty Images)

He said: "If this is upheld, it's pretty obvious those titles have been won unfairly. The whole truth is if Saracens had been operating with a different group of players last season they may not have got to the final.” 

Worcester Warriors’ official statement said: "The salary cap regulations were unanimously agreed by all clubs so everyone is aware of their obligations to comply with them and of the potential consequences should they breach them."

Leicester Tigers boss Geordan Murphy says all Premiership clubs should be investigated, saying their own are “squeaky clean”, while Quins flanker and former England captain Chris Robshaw told the BBC: "It's not great, the game we love is in the world eye and the pinnacle of English rugby is illegal.”

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Former Harlequins Director of Rugby wrote today: “I remember the contract renewal negotiations one year when we had huge decisions to make on backs with similar profiles – we could only sign three out of the four. So it was a case of the first to agree, and Ugo Monye, Mike Brown and Jordan Turner-Hall agreed. Last to come forward was David Strettle, so we couldn't keep him and guess where he went? Saracens.

“In 2013, we were unable to keep James Johnston, the Samoa prop who had been pivotal to our Premiership success, as we were outbid by Saracens once again.”

The club, which has won four Premiership titles and three Champions Cups in the last five seasons, is deemed to have breached the Premiership’s official salary cap (£7 million per club, per season) over a three-year period.

Will they be stripped of their titles?

It looks unlikely as the punishment applies to this season, despite the offences happening beforehand. Saracens are confident that the eight major titles that they won in the three-year period will not be taken away.

Alex Goode and Alex Lozowski (Credit: Getty Images)

What have Saracens said?

The club maintain that they have acted honestly, and been open about the fact that they’ve invested money into what they call “co-investments” and that they “do not constitute salary under the regulations”. 

These include companies such as FAZ Investments Ltd and Wiggy9 Investments Ltd (related to Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth), in which they claim they have invested in alongside the player in schemes designed to provide career paths after retirement.

In an official statement they said: “Saracens is proud of its pioneering, innovative approach to player welfare, developing their talents and supporting their entrepreneurial spirit for life beyond rugby.”

Saracens players with England (Credit: Getty Images)

Have Saracens accepted the punishment? 

No. They’ve appealed the decision, saying: "It's been acknowledged by the panel that we never deliberately sought to mislead anyone or breach the cap”.

They also challenged the validity of the regulations on competition law grounds – effectively questioning the legality of an agreement that they have consistently signed up to and agreed to for the last ten years – but that has already been rejected.

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Despite maintaining their innocence, Saracens finance chief Bernard van Zyl, resigned last October. The club announced his departure just minutes after England’s World Cup semi-final with the All Blacks kicked off.

Could the club be relegated?

Serial winners, Saracens are used to fighting for the title every year. A 35-point deduction would plunge them into a relegation fight, but based on their previous points tallies, they would only have been relegated in three of the last 15 seasons, and not once in the last decade. They would have finished 10th last season, with the same deduction.

As it stands, the official Gallagher Premiership table doesn’t have any deductions, but Saracens’ nine point total has an asterisk that reads: “Saracens deducted 35 points for breaches to the Salary Cap regulations, subject to review”.

Liam Williams of Saracens and Wales (Credit: Getty Images)

Do they have to sell / release players?

Unlikely. According to the investigation the club is not in breach this season, despite having 25 full international players, including 16 from the England squad. Liam Williams (Wales), Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth and Alex Lozowski (all England) are all out of contract at the end of the season and keeping them may prove difficult.

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