SARACENS are in the cross-hairs of a number of Premiership rivals who want them nailed for alleged salary cap breaches before the start of the new season.
Part of their drive to see the double European and domestic champions hit with a heavy points deduction for the 2019-20 league campaign, or a swingeing financial fine, or both, stems from envy.
The other part of their motivation is the pragmatic objective of inflicting a serious wound on a Saracens outfit that might otherwise prove too strong to overhaul – even allowing for the handicap of losing half a dozen players to England’s World Cup campaign.
However, before these Premiership vigilante clubs get too carried away by their moral indignation they had better ensure that there is no slurry pit of salary cap misdemeanours in their own back-yards. This is because they are not the only clubs who can hire so-called ‘forensic accountants’ to go digging for dirt.
My belief – as stated previously in this column – is that there is probably not a club in the Premiership which has not at some stage breached the salary cap regulations. It was, for instance, almost an open secret during the late 1990s that off-the-books payments into offshore funds was a well-worn strategy.
They should also bear in mind that there is no statute of limitations on past misdemeanours.
This cautionary note also extends to a culture at Premiership clubs in which paying lip-service to player welfare is all the rage, but where taking practical steps to help current and future generations of professional players to establish viable careers after retirement is not anywhere near as evident.
To his credit, the Saracens owner, Nigel Wray, puts his financial resources to work for the benefit of the players and staff at his club – as well as for the local community in the shape of the ground-breaking
Saracens High School in Barnet, which opened last year.
However, when Wray’s co-investments with leading players Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Richard Wigglesworth, and Mako and Billy Vunipola were revealed in a Daily Mail article questions were raised about whether they contravened the Premiership’s £7m salary cap.
Wray’s response indicated that he had done his due diligence around the salary cap regulations, and he stressed that as far as he was concerned, everything was above board.
Wray said that there was a clear distinction in the financial model which put the ventures outside the cap: “These are joint ventures, they are not salaries… I really do not think this is payment by any other means.”
He added that Saracens had been transparent about their joint investment plan, and had made a declaration of all of them to Premiership Rugby. He argued that all details of the investments were only a click of the keyboard away, and that there had been no subterfuge or cover-ups related to them.
On the issue of player welfare Wray said: “You can’t say that we care about our players and their futures, and then not care about them… it is an investment that can go down as well as up. It is a risk.”
Wray has described himself as, “an advocate of entrepreneurialism and independent spirit”. He said the young entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the UK economy and that it is why he has, “personally invested in hundreds of these opportunities over 40 years”.
He pointed to the matrix of player welfare areas that Saracens are involved in. This included tertiary education, with 17 players currently in the squad, studying for degrees, with one of the most prominent, England lock George Kruis, having recently been awarded a first class degree in business management.
There are other Saracens players and work placements with club sponsors in the financial and commercial sectors. Their programme also involves supporting what Wray considers viable business ventures.
He cited Tiki Tonga Coffee, founded by Saracens captain Brad Barritt, and Wolfpack Lager, which is run by former players Alan Hargreaves and Chris Wyles, as examples.
The Saracens model that Wray talks about strikes me as one of enlightened capitalism which benefits player welfare when careers on the pitch come to an end.
This probably explains why Andrew Rogers, Premiership Rugby’s head of governance and regulation, is having to be painstaking in his investigation, rather than bending to the pressure being applied by Premiership clubs champing at the bit for him to take punitive action against Saracens.
Another factor that Rogers may have to take into account is that the salary cap regulations have an element of ambiguity about them when it comes to payment in kind.
If Saracens have clearly overstepped the boundaries that are in place, then the regulations should be enforced with an appropriate sanction.
However, if they are exonerated and it emerges that Saracens’ overriding aim is to provide legitimate player welfare that mirrors the same quality they have produced on the pitch, then Premiership Rugby should not hesitate to hold them up as a model that other clubs should attempt to emulate.
CHRISTIAN Wade is the wonderkid who made the bold move of leaving Rugby Union for American Football in April because England coaches could not work out how to harness his exceptional talent.
Prolific former Wasps winger Wade won just one England cap in a decade in our sport, but the omens are good following his move to NFL franchise the Buffalo Bills thanks to a spectacular display in his first game.
The 28-year-old had the crowd on their feet in a pre-season game against the Indianapolis Colts when his agility and blistering pace saw him score a 65 metre touchdown to help the Bills win 24-16.
As Wade streaked clear the commentator waxed lyrical: “Look at the crowd! They are going crazy for their friend from England. He showed the ability there that made him an international rugby superstar!”
If only. Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones had a rugby superstar under their noses, but because they considered him too small, he was never given a fair chance. It was a waste of a great rugby talent.
That’s why it’s great to see Wade raise the roof in such a competitive arena as the NFL, and while it’s too soon to say he has cracked American Football wide open, here’s hoping he does.
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