Chris Robshaw has declared the pinnacle of English rugby “illegal” and accused Saracens of cheating after they were punished for breaches of salary cap regulations.
Saracens were handed a 35-point deduction in this season’s Gallagher Premiership and fined more than £5million on Tuesday, although both sanctions will be suspended while the club – who described the action as “heavy-handed” – appeal against them.
The European champions risked another financial penalty on Wednesday by failing to turn up for the 2019-20 season launch of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in Cardiff.
Former England captain Robshaw was scathing of his criticism of Saracens, saying the London club had dragged rugby union’s reputation through the mud.
“It’s not great, the game we love is in the world eye and the pinnacle of English rugby is illegal,” said Harlequins skipper Robshaw.
“I think it puts our sport in a very dangerous place.
“We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, we look down on this and that and say how it is but we are like everyone else.
“This is cheating to a certain extent and it’s not a good situation for our sport to be in.
“Whether it’s them (Saracens) or someone else, it’s not a thing we pride ourselves on.
“As a sport, we have got to take the damage that comes with that now and I’m sure it will be like that for a while.
“It will not be easy for our sport to move forward, we have got some damage control to do.”
In 2015, Saracens were one of two clubs who reached confidential agreements with Premiership Rugby Limited – the league’s governing body – over salary cap issues.
The league was accused at the time of turning a blind eye to any misdemeanours and wrote the slate clean to the dismay of some clubs.
So, while Saracens have been under scrutiny for some time over their management of the cap, the latest findings only apply to the last three seasons and do not take into account the investigation of 2015.
“It’s one of those things that have been spoken about for a long time among players and the wider public,” Robshaw said.
“When you look at their squad, it’s a pretty big squad of international players and I think you don’t have to be a genius to work some of these figures out.
“It looks like it’s started to be dealt with (by Premiership Rugby Limited). Is it finished? I don’t know, but hopefully it’s going in the right direction and we can get back to a level playing field where we want to compete because that’s what the salary cap is about.
“It’s making sure everyone has a chance, everyone has the same level of funding, can compete and we have a competitive league.”
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South Africa captain Siya Kolisi said he was “tired but grateful, humbled and over-awed” after the World Cup winners were greeted by thousands of fans on their return to the country.
The Springboks triumphed 32-12 over England in Yokohama on Saturday to claim a record-equalling third trophy and a large portion of the squad landed in Johannesburg on three different flights on Tuesday, with more to return on Wednesday.
Kolisi, South Africa’s first black rugby captain, was mobbed by supporters as he carried the Webb Ellis Cup through OR Tambo International Airport.
“In Japan, we got a glimpse of the support back home, but this reception is something else – we can’t begin to thank everyone for backing us throughout this journey,” Kolisi told the South African Rugby Union’s website.
“We did this for all South Africans – ordinary people who work tirelessly all day long to care for their families and friends and ultimately make our wonderful country an even better place.
“Winning the World Cup on foreign soil was very special and arriving home to this wonderful support is the cherry on top. We are tired but grateful, humbled and over-awed – thank you!”
Kolisi, coach Rassie Erasmus, vice-captain Handre Pollard and others had been delayed for a few hours in Sydney ahead of the final leg of their journey, but fans stuck around having earlier greeted the likes of World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph Du Toit and final try scorers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.
The squad will now embark on a ‘Champions Tour’, taking in appearances in Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town after kicking off with a parade through Pretoria, Johannesburg and Soweto on Thursday.
“We brought the Webb Ellis Cup home for all South Africans and we really wish we could go everywhere to thank our supporters, but unfortunately logistics and time constraints doesn’t allow for that to happen this time,” said Erasmus.
“I would like to agree with Siya – the support here at the airport today made all the hard work and sacrifices over the last two months worth it.
“Thank you to everyone who came out to greet us tonight.”
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Win or lose, it was never going to be the glorious season Saracens would have hoped for with alleged breaches of the Premiership’s salary cap rules hanging over them.
Now, after a near three-year investigation by Premiership Rugby, the back-to-back league champions have been hit with a 35-point deduction and fined a staggering £5.3m after being found guilty of failing to comply with the cap.
The violations span the last three seasons – two of which resulted in league success – but the points deduction will be applied in full this campaign which puts the team in a difficult position.
Within ten minutes of Tuesday’s announcement, Premiership Rugby had already updated the league table with the North London club now sitting bottom on minus 26 points after three matches – 30 points behind Bath and Leicester.
If Saracens finished with 35 points less last season, for example, they would have been languishing in 10th place. Not a position any team wants to find themselves in.
Saracens are an unstoppable force and one of the most enjoyable teams to watch across any sport, but this season will be a significant test of their resilience and ability to stay motivated and injury free while battling against constant media attention.
And, although they boast the best squad in Europe, this is no normal year with players returning from World Cup duty fatigued and then out of club action again from mid-January due to the Six Nations.
When you’re missing seasoned internationals Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams, Sean Maitland, Duncan Taylor and Test class players such as Rhys Carre, Alex Lozowski and Ben Spencer all at once over any season, it’ll be a tough prospect coming up against the top English sides.
Coupled with this will be various injuries from the prolonged and gruelling season – especially towards the business end of the campaign – plus a lack of mental freshness.
As easy as they made it look on the field in previous seasons, it’s going to be a serious challenge now for Mark McCall’s side.
The investigation and 35-point sanction will inevitably throw up all sorts of questions over the coming days and weeks.
Why was the point deduction applied to the current season and not the three previous years where the breaches took place?
Will the wage bill challenge the cap, and if so, how will they deal with it?
How they approach the season now with the pressure to put points on the board?
Is the club’s very existence under threat given the severe financial penalty and relegation threat?
Players are undoubtedly going to pick up knocks and McCall will surely want to rest players from some domestic fixtures leading into key European matches.
The international stars, in particular, can’t be expected to play every game and need to be fresh for marquee outings.
But if they fail to finish in the top four – almost certain now – and lose in the Champions Cup, then Sarries will be plying their trade in the Challenge Cup for 2020-2021 season, which has major implications on money and additional sponsorship for the club going forward.
It’s hard to know what will happen or where the cuts will have to come from in order to comply with salary cap regulations, but the obvious case would be for some international stars to take pay cuts or several figures having to leave the club.
That may sound extreme, but if Saracens are being punished for their lucrative spending then cuts have to be made from somewhere.
The quickest option for the club is to appeal so that the fine is at least delayed and they have a better chance of holding onto certain players for longer.
It remains to be seen what will happen next but Tuesday’s announcement is clearly a significant hammer blow to a team both on a sporting and financial level.
Their dominance across both European and domestic competition in recent years has been nothing short of exceptional, but class aside, this year is a different challenge as they face a battle to prove their integrity.