Sarries saga a cold reminder of rugby realities after World Cup

Sarries saga a cold reminder of rugby realities after World Cup
Conor Murray during a Munster Rugby squad training session at University of Limerick in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

There was something cathartic about the way Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup. It made you feel good about the sport. The interaction of fans from all over the world, without rancour or fear, the manner with which visitors to the country were welcomed and embraced, the dignity around the tragic fallout from Typhoon Hagibis.

Despite Ireland’s disappointing no-show, this event will live long in the memory of all lucky enough to experience it in some shape or form.

Time waits for no man, however, and, before we even have time to draw breath, the Champions Cup is upon us. With that comes a timely reminder that not all in the sport is quite as rosy as the feelgood factor that accompanied the last two months in Japan.

Confirmation of the breach in the pay cap regulations that attach to the Gallagher Premiership by its champion side Saracens, while hardly a surprise, has served to devalue their many achievements on both the domestic and European fronts in recent seasons.

The scale of the punishment meted out by Premiership Rugby last week — a deduction of 35 league points this season along with a whopping €6.1m fine — serves to highlight the scale with which the regulations were breached.

All professional sport is populated by the haves and the have nots. Every league across Europe, regardless of the sport, is characterised by a handful of teams who contest for honours every year and those who struggle for survival.

The rich get richer, due to bigger sponsorship deals, a larger slice of the television revenue as there is more demand to see their team in live action, and, as a consequence of their continued success, a bigger fan base contributing to a positive cash flow from increasing season-ticket holders.

The regulations in relation to the salary cap are there for a reason. In theory it affords every club the chance to operate on a level playing field and controls the market in terms of what the top players can earn. The reality is different, with some clubs looking for innovative ways of circumventing those restrictions.

Saracens’ creative if somewhat transparent use of extracurricular commercial arrangements for their key players, including England captain Owen Farrell and star forward Maro Itoje, was always likely to come under scrutiny.

It was no secret that these arrangements had been in place. In effect a somewhat similar practice has taken place here in Ireland with a number of the top-ranked Irish players having their IRFU salaries supplemented by additional commercial contracts from provincial sponsors.

The difference is there is no salary cap operating in the Guinness Pro14 or in European competition, while the additional payments are clearly from a third party source. This arrangement enables the top Irish players to maximise their earning capacity, which they are entitled to do, without breaching any regulation.

After an exhaustive investigation, the punishment meted out to Saracens highlights the extent of the crime. While the full implications of this fine and the inevitable fallout will take time to manifest, there is no doubt that a number of clubs, including Leinster and Munster, start their Champions Cup campaign next weekend with the prospect of winning it an even more realistic goal on the back of the domestic challenge Saracens face this season.

Given the very real threat of relegation posed by the potential deduction of so many points, it came as no surprise that Mark McCall declared over the weekend that Saracens will have to prioritise domestic survival this season over the possibility of retaining their European crown.

Sarries saga a cold reminder of rugby realities after World Cup

Last season, Leinster fell at the final hurdle to a Saracens side whose bona fides has now come under close scrutiny while Munster fell at the penultimate stage to the same opposition. Between them, Saracens and Toulon have won six of the last seven Heineken/Champions Cups. Both were bankrolled by highly influential benefactors in Nigel Wray and Mourad Boudjellal. While you want to beat the best, a levelling of the playing field will be greatly accepted by a number of clubs who found Saracens too hot to crack in recent times.

Saracens are probably stronger than the England side that hammered New Zealand in the semi-final of the World Cup and had nine players directly involved in the final itself, eight with England and Springbok reserve tight head prop Vincent Koch.

With England full back Elliot Daly set to join from Wasps after the World Cup, the competition for the full-back jersey alone sees two British and Irish Lions in Daly and Wales’s Liam Williams set to fight it out with another England international in Alex Goode. That level of competition is commonplace throughout their squad.

While Saracens currently sit in third place in the Gallagher Premiership, with three wins from four outings, the proposed sanction would see them propping up the table on minus-22 points, 26 behind current basement side Leicester Tigers.

With Wray deciding to appeal the sanctions imposed by the investigation panel, the points deduction has been suspended for now.

Quite what happens next is unclear. If the decision is upheld in court, and the suggestion is that will be the case as Saracens clearly signed up to the terms and conditions applying to the salary cap regulations, then do the players have to accept a salary cut to satisfy the salary cap limits?

It could take months for that whole process to unravel. What one can’t dispute is the brilliant job McCall has done over the last few years in managing all the big egos in such a talented squad and keeping them focused and hungry in their pursuit of silverware. Sport is packed with talented and highly paid squads who fail to reach their true potential for all manner of reasons.

That unity and togetherness will be severely tested over the next few weeks and months, but I strongly suspect the fallout from the investigation will only serve to bring that group of players even closer together and make them even harder to beat. The one thing that could change that is the necessity to offload some of their higher profile players in order to satisfy the salary cap limits.

Sarries saga a cold reminder of rugby realities after World Cup

The biggest losers in this saga have been Exeter Chiefs, who lost three of the last four Premiership finals to Saracens. What they have achieved on a very limited budget is an inspiration to all Premiership clubs. The Chiefs have a right to feel cheated given how close they have pushed Saracens in recent times.

I have been to Sandy Park twice over the last two seasons to witness cracking Champions Cup games against Leinster and Munster. The stadium is the closest I’ve seen, in terms of setting and atmosphere, to the old Thomond Park and their fans are brilliant in every way. They deserve better.

After the thrills and, from an Irish perspective, the disappointments of the World Cup, it may take a while for this season’s Champions Cup to catch fire here. The weekend’s opening fixtures for Munster and Leinster, against Ospreys and Treviso, respectively, will hardly send pulses racing but should afford both sides the opportunity to integrate a number of their returning internationals.

Ulster and Connacht face more challenging assignments with Dan McFarland’s men having to go to Bath while a powerful Montpellier side travel to Galway.

The madness of the playing calendar means that for the Welsh and English players, along with a number of World Cup-winning Springboks scattered around Europe, the prospect of having to negotiate a European fixture within two weeks of a third-place play off or World Cup final is asking too much. It will be interesting to see how many of those players will even be asked to do so.

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