Saracens scandal: Report shows ex-owner’s deals with players

LONDON (AP) — Former Saracens owner Nigel Wray broke rules by entering into investments in property and image rights with a number of players, according to a disciplinary report published Thursday that detailed how the club breached salary-cap regulations in one of English rugby’s biggest scandals.

The English and European champions were deducted 35 points ahead of the start of the English league season and fined more than 5 million pounds ($6.5 million) for three seasons’ spending above the cap. Having failed to prove Saracens were now compliant with the salary cap, it was announced on Saturday they would be relegated at the end of the season and drop into England’s second-tier Championship.

The details behind the punishment had previously remained confidential, but were released by Premiership Rugby, which runs the English top tier, after Saracens said Wednesday they would be happy for the report to be made public.

The 103-page document says Saracens breached the salary cap by 1.1 million pounds ($1.44 million) in the 2016-17 season, by around 98,000 pounds ($128,000) in 2017-18, and by 906,000 pounds ($1.2 million) in 2018-19.

“Saracens continually and recklessly failed to comply with its obligations to co-operate” with the salary-cap rules, stated the report, which added that the breaches were all the more serious because the club had already settled a charge of flouting the cap in 2015.

The report stated that Wray made payments totalling 1.3 million pounds ($1.7 million) by entering into property joint ventures with players.

The players’ names were redacted from the published report, but Sky News reported that they were brothers Billy and Mako Vunipola and another England international, Richard Wigglesworth.

According to Sky, the report stated that Wray and two other directors paid 1.6 million pounds ($2.1 million) for a 30% stake in the image rights of Maro Itoje, based on a valuation by an accountancy firm. Premiership Rugby used another firm, which valued the shares at half of that figure.

The three-man panel rejected Wray’s argument that the investments were not salary.

“We are satisfied that these capital contributions were salary,” the panel concluded.

Wray later said in a statement that he was “really sorry for the heartache that I have caused” by his “ill-considered approach.”

“My intention with co-investments was always to support players beyond their playing careers,” he said.

“I recognize that the actions of the club were described by the panel as ‘reckless’ primarily due to my failure to consult with Premiership Rugby’s salary cap manager prior to entering into any agreements and then disclosing the transactions to him. I take full responsibility for this. We should have been far better.”

Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs said the body was pleased to be able to publish the report.

“Now that everyone can see the details,” Childs said, “the decision will show that Premiership Rugby has taken firm action to enforce the regulations and our management of the salary cap has been endorsed by the panel.”