Just imagine for a moment what the last 10 days have been like if you are one of Saracen’s England players…You lose a World Cup Final, have to endure a long, tedious flight back to England, where, instead of an open-topped bus parade through London, you are met with the news that your club has been docked 35 points and fined £5.3m. Welcome home…
It says much for the talent within the club that it could go to a predictably hostile place like Gloucester’s Kingsholm, still bereft of their England players, and dominate a side who were in the Premiership play-offs last season, winning 21-12.
Gloucester’s head coach Johan Ackermann accepted that defeat was justified, saying “They have a DNA that works for them and they were better than us despite them having to play under considerable pressure.”
Every time Saracens, or any club, produce an England player, they have to share the proceeds from Twickenham with all the other clubs. Of the money paid for every player produced (about £180k), only a third, £60k, finds its way to the club.
Of the remaining £120k, they can only add £80k to the salary cap in order to pay the players they have to bring in to cover their international absentees.
This means that if they lose say six players to the England squad the maximum salary cap allowances the club can claim is £80k of the £180k. This leaves Saracens not only with the disadvantage of losing their best players for Premiership matches but the inability to sign players of a similar high quality because of the inadequacy of the allowance.
So, what is the point of developing England players?
Harlequins’ ex-England captain Chris Robshaw claimed that “We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, but we are like everyone else.” Welcome to the real world of professional sport Chris.
A number of commentators have labelled the Saracens hoo-haa as rugby union’s biggest scandal since the “Bloodgate” one of 10 years ago, which involved the cutting of mouths, bogus blood capsules, the near ruination of the careers of two medical staff, long bans and a £260,000 fine. And as it happens Harlequins were the club involved. Saracens’ fine in effect means what the legal beaks saw as essentially culpable administrative errors is seen as 20 times more serious than Bloodgate.
The Saracens salary cap has been discussed in great detail in the sporting pages-it was getting more coverage than the usual football speculation that dominates the back pages.
It does beggar belief that Saracens, if they believed they had found a legitimate loophole, didn’t check it with Premiership Rugby’s financial regulators step by step. Or did they think themselves so clever they thought either it didn’t matter, or they could keep the scheme secret.
There is also a déjà vu element to all this Half a century ago when every player was officially amateur and therefore “equal”, boot money and the infamous brown envelopes started coming into the game. ; rent -free houses for the lads, jobs in the City conjured up for those lacking even a maths O level.
Then came the brave new world of professionalism and eventually the adoption of salary caps so that every team, theoretically, starts equal. Except equality is complete anathema to rugby -and indeed many sports. Sport is largely about not being equal. Being bigger, faster, better, stronger, more successful and better rewarded than anybody else. That’s in rugby’s DNA and no fine or points drop will change that.
Can I finish with a little prediction: Once the dust settles around Allianz Park, and new, much tougher guidelines are agreed by Premiership Rugby, it will take but a nanosecond before somebody works out afresh how to beat the system.