Cheating champs: English rugby rocked by Saracens scandal

January 20, 2020

They call it “The Saracens Way," a list of core values that the club from north London says helped transform a “chronically underachieving organization” to become the dominant force in European rugby.

One of the core values Saracens pride themselves on is “honesty,” which might be something of an affront given the state the team finds itself in amid one of the biggest scandals in the history of English rugby.

In a case which, in scale and repercussions, is being described as English rugby’s equivalent of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, it was announced on Saturday that Saracens would be relegated from England’s top division at the end of this season for their breach of salary-cap regulations.

Saracens are the reigning English and European champions. They have won four of the last five English titles and three of the last four European Cup titles, the kind of dual dynasty never previously seen from an English club. They own some of the most high-profile players in the sport, like England captain Owen Farrell and World Player of the Year nominees Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola.

On the field, these players demonstrate honesty every week. Check out, for example, the tackles and long-busting runs Itoje, Vunipola and Farrell made in helping England win that memorable Rugby World Cup semifinal match against New Zealand three months ago.

However, the paymasters at Saracens haven’t shown the same integrity as their players.

Saracens have essentially been punished for spending above their means over the past three years in building a world-class squad that obliterated all rivals. To start with, the club was deducted 35 points ahead of the English league season and fined more than 5 million pounds ($6.5 million).

Asked to dramatically cut their playing budget and let external auditors analyse their finances, Saracens didn’t want to do either and have chosen to accept the fate of being demoted to the second-tier RFU Championship instead.

So much for honesty.

Speaking of which, the leaders of the English game hardly come out of this looking great, either. The lack of transparency in the whole process has been glaring, rugby authorities failing every step of the way to explain the depth of Saracens’ transgressions.

Even the statement by Premiership Rugby on Saturday raised more questions than answers. What was the extent of the cheating? How hard has the club tried to deal with their sanctions over the past four months while still competing in high-level competitions? What happens to the trophies won during the period they have breached rules?

The rugby public is still waiting for the answers, just like in English soccer with the conclusion of UEFA's investigation into English champion Manchester City 's alleged flouting of financial fair play rules and possible deception of authorities set to be published in the coming weeks.

What we do know is that Saracens’ expensively assembled squad will be broken up.

"There's no doubt the bunch of players we've got in our squad now aren't going to be the same bunch of players we have in the Championship next year," Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said. "We have got some time to plan for a new era, a new journey, and that is the optimistic way of looking at it."

Where superstars like Itoje, Farrell and the Vunipola brothers — Billy and Mako — go, if they have to leave, is another matter entirely. Will they be sent out on loan for a season in case Saracens gain promotion at the first attempt? Will they go to French club rugby, where the salaries are the biggest in Europe but from where England players aren’t allowed to play for their country?

Wales fullback Liam Williams is already heading back to Welsh regional club Scarlets at the end of the season.

Saracens’ downfall also impacts the international game, with England coach Eddie Jones potentially faced with the choice of selecting people for his squad who are playing in the second tier of the domestic game. The Rugby Football Union has said that players from that level are eligible to play for England, but what will Jones think about that?

“Is he prepared for people to be playing in the Championship?” McCall said of Jones.

At the end of next season, the British and Irish Lions will tour South Africa and many of the players making up that squad would currently be in the Saracens team. Warren Gatland, recently appointed for a third spell as Lions coach, might also be faced with difficult choices.

Then there’s the fallout for the domestic game, with Saracens having to fulfil their remaining schedule in the English Premiership despite knowing they are getting relegated no matter the results. Does this affect the integrity of the competition? The likes of Leicester, Wasps and Harlequins — huge, historic names in English club rugby — were in danger of relegation this season but not anymore, with only one team demoted each season, so they can breathe a sigh of relief.

The ultimate insult could come in May, when the final of European Champions Cup is held in Marseille. Saracens reached the quarterfinals on Sunday when they beat French team Racing 92 27-24 despite playing for the majority of the game with 14 men, the latest example of the strength and depth of the English team.

Imagine if Saracens conquered Europe again, with a squad that has been proved to be not compliant with domestic salary-cap rules. Nothing could stop Saracens from keeping their best players fresh for the upcoming European knockout games by resting them for English league matches.

It would leave English rugby leaders even more red-faced then they already are.

As for Saracens, the club says its aim now is to “rebuild confidence and trust” and “come back stronger.”

“The board must embody the values of the club,” said a club statement, issued a day after its fate was announced.

For fans and rival clubs, it’s far too late for that.