Move over Dean Richards, Harlequins, and ‘Bloodgate’, there is an even bigger bad news story to overtake you in the annals of English club rugby history, writes
At the heart of it, once again, is flagrant bending of the rules and, finally, the powers that be have caught up with Saracens, their owner Nigel Wray, and the swathe of payments that took them above and beyond the salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership.
The punishment was meted out three days after England failed in their bid to win the Rugby World Cup in Japan with six Saracens regulars in their ranks and a seventh who is set to join them on his return from Japan. Welcome, Elliot Daly, to the team set to be propping up the bottom of the Premiership table, some 30 points adrift of the next worst team.
There aren’t many club sides in the world that handle a team of so many talents as the reigning English and European champions, but on this occasion, it seems Saracens have been floored by the lawmakers. It is the biggest financial penalty ever handed out in rugby union and one of the highest point deductions ever seen.
There will inevitably be an appeal, and don’t bet against either the 35 points deduction that is set to leave last season’s Premiership winners trailing Bath and Leicester on a rather embarrassing -26 points, or the £5.36m pound fine, being reduced. Whatever happens, one of the greatest teams in the history of English rugby, with five Premiership titles and three European Champions Cup crowns, could well have to be dismantled.
Paying the fine will be easy for Wray and his fellow benefactors, mere pin money given the size of their wallets, but having been found in breach of the salary cap, how are they now going to keep their current squad together within the ceiling figure? No wonder the Ospreys have been rumoured to be putting together a bid to take Liam Williams back home.
Who knows how much it costs to employ a team that boasts the England captain Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, British & Irish Lions Maro Itoje, Jamie George, George Kruis, and Williams, the Scottish duo Sean Maitland and Duncan Taylor, and newly crowned world champion Vincent Koch. But it takes a lot, a whole hell of a lot, of cash!
You have to feel sorry for Mark McCall, who has done such an excellent job as the director of rugby at the club. Nobody in his position would have turned down the calibre of player he was constantly offered, and there have been a number of homegrown talents who came through the Academy at the club, but it is no obvious that he hasn’t been coaching on a level playing field.
There will be a few hysterical calls for Saracens to be stripped of their titles but I doubt anybody would accept any of their silverware in retrospect under the circumstances. If they manage to stay within the salary cap from now on, as they surely have to, then it will be interesting to see what sort of squad they can muster and how it affects their performances and results.
For once, you have to applaud the disciplinarians for upholding the rules, although it took them a hell of a long time to get to this stage, and the punishment probably fits the crime. It is a stark warning to the money men at other clubs who think they can simply buy success.
What they don’t realise is that they destabilise the market place for everyone else, undermine good work and Academy programmes at other clubs across Europe, and cause a massive over-inflation in players' wages.
Club rugby in Europe has been haemorrhaging money for decades. What was happening at Saracens wasn’t helping. Today’s news could just be a valuable finger in the dyke.