From today's Times
Rugby can’t move on until Nigel Wray answers questions over Saracens
owen slot, chief rugby correspondent
Chief Rugby Correspondent
Yesterday in The Times, Tony Rowe, the Exeter Chiefs chairman, kind of declared war on Saracens. He said that he would be consulting his lawyers. He wants to know, he said, if he has a legal case against them. This is how bad it has got. Mistrust and hostility in the Gallagher Premiership has reached a rabid high.
Does Rowe have a case? In the past two Premiership finals, his Chiefs were beaten by a Saracens team who, we now know, were in breach of the salary cap. How much of a loss to income and value have Exeter experienced by being denied the opportunity to become double champions — that is Rowe’s point and thus his question to his lawyers is: is that actionable?
I started off by trying to estimate the rough loss of income. I asked people close to these things (not at Exeter). As a rough guideline, your merchandise sales go up £150,000 in the year you are champions; your season-ticket sales will go up too and deliver an uplift of about £200,000 to £400,000. Sponsorship is a harder guessing game, but some of these deals have win bonuses. Clearly winning two titles would attract further sponsors, and of course the uplift would vary from club to club. A reasoned and conservative assessment is that a single Premiership title would be worth at least £600,000. And Exeter lost two of them.
Yet if Exeter were successful with a legal case, then what is next? Gloucester, last season, finished third and were thus rewarded with a play-off game away to Saracens. What if Saracens had been weaker last season and Gloucester had got the home tie? That would have been worth £100,000 to them.
What if Newcastle Falcons had beaten Saracens with two bonus-point victories? They would have survived relegation and what would that have been worth?
So if Exeter establish a legal precedent, where does it end? It would probably not have come to this if Saracens had shown more contrition and if Exeter and other clubs were convinced that Saracens were not transgressing again.
Instead, we come to round five of the Premiership this weekend with the competition suffering from a massive credibility crisis. This is unlikely to be resolved unless these four questions can be answered.
Can we believe that Saracens are under the cap this season?
Saracens insist they are. They said this last season and we now know that they weren’t. They were not only found guilty of salary cap breaches in the past three seasons, but in the 2013-14 season too. We don’t actually know when they were last under the cap. So why should they be believed?
Look at the numbers. Last season they were at least £600,000 over the cap. They have since recruited three internationals: Elliot Daly (big salary), Jack Singleton (less so) and Rhys Carré (definitely not). Five internationals have left the club: Schalk Burger, Marcelo Bosch, David Strettle, Dominic Day and Christian Tolofua. That has definitely reduced the spend. Everyone would love to know if it has reduced it enough.
What about the controversial co-investments? These are the business agreements that Nigel Wray, the owner, has made with certain leading players and we are led to believe that no such investments have been made for this season. That clearly reduces the numbers but is that good enough?
If, for instance, Wray has underpaid Player X by £250,000 a year over three years on his salary, but front-loaded his contract with a £750,000 co-investment in year one, should the co-investment only come into the audit for the year it was made? This is what concerns Saracens’ rival clubs. Is that not cheating the spirit of the salary cap agreement?
One club administrator went further. He said: “What we don’t know is worse than what we do know.” This is a reference to many aspects of player payment, but particularly housing arrangements.
If you listen to The Rugby Pod podcast, on which they have twice earnestly debated the salary cap scandal, they poke fun at Jim Hamilton, a former Saracen, over the ownership of property in north London. The suggestion is that he was given a free house. This kind of joke has been around for years.
I spoke to another ex-Saracen last week and he was telling me — “Rather than rent, Nigel gives you a home. That makes you happier” — then put the phone down.
For Saracens to win back credibility, it would be handy to put this joke to bed. The best solution may be the one we are reporting on the back page today: Premier Rugby Limited (PRL) is asking Saracens to open their books for an extraordinary mid-season audit. If Saracens refuse, PRL rugby will try to force their hand.
Did Saracens really breach the cap unintentionally?
Wray insists that he did. In his first statement on the issue, he referred to the judgment by the legal panel that “acknowledged” Saracens “did not deliberately attempt to breach the salary cap.” From a 103-page judgment, this feels like rather selective quoting. Only in later statements does Wray add that Saracens were found to be “reckless”.
The only face-to-face discussion I have had on the salary cap with Wray was in an interview in 2015 when he said: “At the end of the day, people don’t obey bad law.”
I also asked if there was to be an investigation that showed Saracens had broken the salary cap, would you feel embarrassed or would it just be annoying to have been found to have breached what you call a bad law? “No,” he said, “I wouldn’t feel embarrassed because this system is unworkable and it must be changed.”
Then, this year, I spoke to the South Africans who formerly owned 50 per cent of the club. They had been concerned about whether Saracens were breaching the cap and had made it clear that if the club were neither under the cap nor within the spirit of it, then they would leave. They said that when they asked questions, the explanations were that the cap rules were open to interpretation. Their concern with the cap was a major part of their reason to sell.
If Saracens could actually show the rest of the league that their breach was really made in error, they have to show us some evidence. Wray’s word does clearly not suffice.
Why not publish the legal judgment?
This has become a big focus of the debate. The report has not even been circulated to the other 12 shareholding clubs — the 11 from the top flight and Newcastle Falcons of the Championship. If a chairman or chief executive from another club wishes to read the (redacted) report, he has to go to the offices of PRL in Twickenham. His time with the report is supervised. No notes or photos are permitted.
If Saracens want to be believed, then this report should be published. If this Premiership season is to retain any credibility, the report should be made public. For now we — the players, the fans, the game — are stuck not knowing what to believe.
The PRL agreement is to maintain confidentiality. In this case, this confidentiality is stripping its competition of its integrity. There are solutions. If all 13 clubs vote to release the report, it would be hard to stop it. Of course, this needs Saracens’ vote.
Saracens have at least said that they would give it. If that is the case, they could share the full details of their payment structure independently. That would be taking the initiative rather than being obliged by Premier Rugby to open their books again.
Why no apology?
It is the lack of contrition that has caused so much widespread anger. If Saracens really twisted the outcome of a joint competition three seasons in succession and without meaning to, then why not apologise?
If Saracens were to recognise the cost to others — the loss of revenue at Exeter, the cost to every club, the cost to the competition’s credibility, the loss of opportunity for other players and other fans to have a fair shot at the kind of glory and fulfilment and days in the sun that Saracens have enjoyed — then they would go a considerable way to drawing a line under the past, to rebooting the Premiership and giving the game a chance to believe again.