The sporting year of 2019 will be remembered as one where titles were won and lost by the finest of margins.
Domestic rugby union was no different as a dramatic final to the Premiership season ensued – and once the 22 regular rounds were done and dusted, Exeter Chiefs came up against their old foes Saracens at Twickenham.
With just 20 minutes left of a pulsating final clash, Henry Slade, Exeter’s inside centre with poster boy looks and a skill set to match, scored a brilliant try to give the Chiefs an eleven-point lead.
The trophy looked set to be heading for Devon until Saracens demonstrated why they are widely considered the best English club side of the 21st century, with a stirring comeback to eventually win a titanic struggle.
The result was harsh, incredibly harsh, on Exeter – with their players left desolate on the lush Headquarters playing surface while Sarries and their captain Owen Farrell lifted the Premiership trophy for a second successive season.
Those of a neutral disposition who observed the match may have felt that the better side won and indeed, it’s hard to disagree with that conclusion. Some even called the outcome a fair result – but the events of the past seven days have demonstrated that Saracens’ win was anything but and the subsequent fall-out from the biggest scandal to ever hit English rugby has sent tremors through the game that show no sign of abating.
If the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal which rocked rugby and the Harlequins club ten years ago was considered seismic, at just before 11am on Tuesday morning, something much greater and far more damaging for Premiership rugby – and Saracens more specifically – emerged.
It was one of those moments where time seemed to stand still. I was on the train to Cardiff for Wednesday’s European Cup launch when a press release from Premiership Rugby landed in my inbox. It was titled PREMIERSHIP RUGBY STATEMENT – DECISION ON SALARY CAP CHARGES. This wasn’t something that was instantly sent to ‘trash’ and it probably took three or four reads to really take in the enormity of those words.
Premiership Rugby and Sport Resolutions – an independent dispute service – had ruled that Saracens had broken salary cap rules after an investigation into investment companies jointly set up by owner Nigel Wray and their star players.
Paragraph four was perhaps the most tremorous of all. It read: “The decision of the Independent Panel is that Saracens Rugby Club failed to disclose payments to players in each of the seasons 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
“In addition, the Club is found to have exceeded the ceiling for payments to senior players in each of the three seasons. The Panel therefore upheld all of the charges.”
The statement then went on to reveal the punishment that had been handed out to Saracens: a total fine of £5,360,272.3 and a total deduction of 35 league points.
In simple terms, Saracens had cheated and were being punished in accordance with the severity of their crime. But is this punishment enough?
Exeter more than any other club have a real right to feel aggrieved at not only the initial judgment but the subsequent ruling also. In two of Saracens’ seasons in which they were ruled to have offended, they beat the Chiefs to the Premiership title.
Exeter’s chief executive Tony Rowe said in the aftermath that Saracens should be relegated from the Premiership while director of rugby Rob Baxter, while speaking to The Independent in the Welsh capital, felt the last two league titles had been won unfairly.
That’s not sour grapes either as Saracens deserved their wins for on-field accomplishments. But how different would the matches have been if they had complied fully with the cap and not agreed deals to keep their stars by offering them business investments instead?
For a start, there would be three Premiership trophies currently residing in the Sandy Park trophy cabinet which adorns the entrance and main reception of the Chiefs’ home ground.
Saracens may still have reached the finals, but their team would not have been packed full of the world’s best players because if they had adhered to the rules, and stayed within the cap, then there is no way they would have been able to keep their glittering squad of talent together.
The Saracens team that has conquered all before it in recent times was a fraud – assembled by illegal means. Because of this, they cheated, and Exeter have every right to feel cheated too.
And not only were Exeter beaten into second place, they played by the rules. Want to sign Stuart Hogg? Ship some players out to make room under the salary cap. So off went Tom Lawday and exciting Argentine flyer Santiago Cordero during the summer.
Instead of Rowe and Co offering those two a share in a South Hams mansion, a moral decision was made that to sign a player of Hogg’s calibre meant there would be departures.
That is playing by the rules and this was the reason Premiership Rugby introduced a salary cap 20 years ago to create a level playing field and stop clubs exercising dark arts to find supposed loopholes. But even after the guilty verdict, Wray and Co are continuing to slope shoulders. They have indicated an appeal will be forthcoming, but this is further proof that there is scant regard for the rules or those that comply.
Rugby, I am sorry to say, is well and truly in the gutter now and despite a full round of Premiership matches going ahead across three days this weekend, the on-field action is almost secondary.
This means the next moves from all parties will be intriguing and scrutinised heavily – and may be even more damaging if Saracens continue with their failure to accept the recent ruling. A heavily bloated squad has seen further additions, with England full-back Elliot Daly arriving from Wasps. If the cap was broken previously, then Daly’s salary will surely push it even further over the edge.
You can see no logical reason for the fine or points deduction to be reduced, despite the appeal meaning that Saracens must either rip up the current investment deals they have with players, or a fire sale will need to be forthcoming at Allianz Park.
If any of that happens remains to be seen, but regardless, given the crime committed, this current punishment is still not strong enough. When a similar scenario occurred in the NRL, Melbourne Storm were stripped of their titles and forced to pay back any prize money won whilst breaking rules.
If this was forced upon Saracens, then rugby would perhaps claw back some of its squeaky-clean reputation which has been left in tatters this week. For the club itself, this damage seems irreparable. Their Premiership and European crowns will be forever tarnished and no number of fines, points deductions or even relegations will ever stop Exeter supporters wondering what might have been.