‘We talked about sitting down after 5, 10 years time and saying it was good to be a part of that.’
The words of Michael Lynagh in January 1996. The other part of the ‘we’ was Nigel Wray, a millionaire property dealer who was the new owner of Saracens.
The season before, Saracens had been a Second Division team. They finished as Champions and gained promotion to the English First Division. This coincided with the arrival of professional rugby and the excitement and uncertainty it brought. The stakes had been raised and the reality was that rich benefactors were going to play a significant role in the development of the club game. Before long, other high profile arrivals were recruited; Francois Pienaar was fresh from captaining South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win the year before, legendary French centre Philippe Sella made the shorter trip across the Channel and English half-back jumped in his car and drove up from Bristol.
In the most recent amateur era, the dominant club teams had been Bath, Leicester and Wasps so it would be interesting to see if anyone could challenge that trio. Newcastle Falcons, under the ownership of Sir John Hall (who was also the owner of Newcastle United Football Club) invested heavily with the likes of Inga Tuigamala, Scottish second row Doddie Weir and half back Gary Armstrong and English winger Tony Underwood strengthening their stock. A Second Division title in 1996 was followed by a First Division title at their first attempt, in 1997; Saracens were runners up and money seemed to be starting to talk. The new era never took off though. Leicester won the next four titles, followed by a three-peat from Wasps. Despite their struggles in the league, Bath won the European Cup in 1998.
Nigel Wray remained the owner of Saracens and although high profile signings continued, they looked to build from within with a strong Academy structure. For Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’ you can look at the Saracens ‘Class of ’08’ which contained Owen Farrell, Jamie George and George Kruis who have been a large part of Saracens success over the last decade.
Saracens finally made the major breakthrough in 2011 (they had won the Tetley’s Bitter Cup in 1998) when they won the English Premiership and since then they have won a further four titles as well as three European titles. This success has however been clouded for many years with suspicions that the club was exceeding the Salary Cap, which was first introduced into the Premiership in 1999. In short that cap is currently £7 million per season, although each club can nominate two players to be excluded from that cap. In addition, clubs receive £600,000 in academy credits for players who are (a) under the age of 24 (b) joined the club before their 18th birthday and (c) are earning more than £30,000 per year. Finally, clubs can apply for one injury replacement per season when a player has been injured for a period of 12 weeks or more.
The club provided 6 players to the British & Irish Lions squad that toured New Zealand in 2017 and 9 of their players (8 for England and 1 for South Africa) were in the match day squads for the recent Rugby World Cup final. Those players, even if they’ve come through the Saracens Academy, will want to be paid their market value, so how could Saracens balance the cap? Quite simply, they couldn’t.
In November, they were docked 35 points and fined £5.4 million for breaking the cap over the past three seasons. Such is their advantage over the bottom teams in the league, the 35 points weren’t an automatic relegation sentence; but they were still over budget in relation to his season’s cap (possibly by up to £2 million) and last Tuesday at the Premiership Board Meeting, they were given the option of opening up their books or relegation. Earlier today, Premiership Rugby confirmed that relegation was the result.
Saracens Chairman Neil Goulding said: ‘As the new Chairman of Saracens I acknowledge the club has made errors in the past and we unreservedly apologise for those mistakes. I and the rest of the Board are committed to overseeing stringent new governance measures to ensure regulatory compliance going forward.’
How has it got to this? They say success breeds success. If you’re winning, the best players want to be a part of it, that’s human nature; but the club have broken the rules, plain and simple. Those in charge of the club had the opportunity to stick or twist. Stick and risk being overtaken by the cyclical nature that sport throws up, or twist and keep bringing in the big names to try and safeguard their success. A salary cap, by its very nature is trying to make the playing field more level. Cheat and you’re out, and out they are.
For Saracens, their immediate future is finishing out the Premiership season and playing in the European Champions Cup. Winning another European title will not mean they can play in Europe next season, that’s off the table. But beyond that it’s a future that will see mass departures, some permanent, some perhaps on loan to other clubs. They may well make it back into the Premiership at their first attempt, but what then? When Michael Lynagh and others came on board over the last twenty five years, they probably couldn’t have foreseen the success the club would eventually achieve. Even less likely was the nightmare that now gives so many involved with the club sleepless nights.
Follow Aiden on Twitter