Latest twist in Saracens salary cap scandal threatens a descent into pure farce

Robert Kitson

What a mess. Not only for Saracens, currently neck-deep in a reputational slurry pit of their own making, but for everyone involved. And, talking to those at the heart of the onrushing scandal, there remains plenty more to come. Ordeur, ordeur! Saracens playing in the Championship next season is barely the half of it.

Consider, for example, the collateral damage that has already been done to English league rugby. Now triple it. If Saracens really have been operating over the salary cap this season by as much as £2 million – having already been fined £5.36 million and deducted 35 league points for breaching the cap for the previous three seasons – the situation is truly farcical. Talk about bare-faced cheek as well as brazen cheques.

It is not much use sheltering behind the allegation, most loudly expressed on Twitter by their ex-director of rugby Brendan Venter, that others are at it too. Even if so does that totally exonerate Saracens’ flagrant breaches of the regulations? With each passing day it seems ever more incredible that the club initially considered appealing the original judgment.

Related: Saracens face threat of automatic relegation in salary cap saga

Any wriggle room has slowly disappeared. Even Sarries seem to have recognised they are completely snookered, with no trick shot available to free them from their current predicament. Even getting rid of their top players – the Owen Farrells, the Maro Itojes - tomorrow was a non-starter. The salary cap ‘year’ commences in July so half their sizeable salaries have already been paid. Severance payments would also have to be included under the cap and barely any other English clubs would be able to afford them anyway if they wish to remain compliant.

The ripple effect threatens to be considerable, both internationally and domestically. England are due to announce their Six Nations’ squad this Monday and commence their championship campaign against France in Paris in a fortnight. Farrell, Itoje, Jamie George, the Vunipolas, Elliot Daly ... they would not be human if their minds were not currently a whirl of personal and professional uncertainty, at the mercy of events beyond their control. Do they stay on a sharply-reduced salary? Do they move in order to remain a Premiership player? Might they have to flee abroad? Or might relegation, perversely, keep the guts of the squad together, with temporary loan deals easing the pain?

Even the RFU’s confirmation on Friday that Eddie Jones can, if necessary, select players from the Championship had a jagged edge to it. For a start it signalled that, at Twickenham, they are braced for the unthinkable. Even if all the players stay put, on sharply reduced wages, playing at Ampthill and Doncaster is not obviously great preparation for an autumn Test series. Might it also affect their chances of British and Irish Lions selection?

Saracens captain Owen Farrell. The club now look set for further punishment for salary-cap breaches. Photograph: Tess Derry/PA

It gets worse. Relegation would mean they cannot feature in the European Champions’ Cup for the next two seasons. What does that do to their marketability? How can Farrell, as England captain, possibly juggle such an unenviable situation. How will the club’s sponsors react? Will the next generation of talented young players be remotely as keen to wear the club’s badge?

At the back of the players’ minds will also be another nagging thought: should they have seen some of this coming? Sure, it is not strictly their business how their club’s finances are handled. But did no-one think to wonder, as they looked around the dressing-room with its legions of top internationals, how they could assemble and retain this calibre of squad while no-one else was doing so? If not, perhaps they should have done.

Maybe the gleam of all that silverware – three European Cups in the last four years, four of the last five Premiership titles – dazzled everyone too much. Maybe they concluded, as Venter says, that everyone else was doing it. Any sense of complacency, either way has now evaporated, replaced by the cold, hard reality that their initial heavy punishment is no longer the end of it.

Serious questions also need to be asked about the continuing suppression of the original judgement. Even its author, Lord Dyson, cannot believe it has not been publicly released. It scarcely helps that there remains lingering bad feeling dating back to previous hushed-up Premiership salary cap breaches, after which a line in the sand was supposedly drawn. And why not? If, even this season, you have been losing to a team in breach of the regulations, it is going to sting. No wonder Premiership Rugby has belatedly tightened its stance: it simply cannot afford for a different club to be relegated in June, only for Saracens to be unmasked for breaking salary cap rules again.

Only in the last few weeks, since Griffiths’ return, has any real sense of mea culpa surfaced in north London. It is not going to be enough to save the club from an even heavier fall. For all their impressive academy conveyor belt and enlightened player management, their legacy is now tarnished. Has it left an indelible stain on the English league? Undoubtedly. The whole steaming mess threatens to stink out the Six Nations this year and, potentially, beyond.