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Guscott column: Overall, there is sadness at end of Saracens’ era

Saracens

THE Saracens salary cap story is a sad episode for a game in which values of honesty and integrity have always been considered important. On the field, by and large, those qualities remain, but the understanding did not extend as far as it needed at Saracens.

It is really regrettable that Nigel Wray did not talk to PRL about what he was doing in terms of co-investments, because it has resulted in the club being relegated.

While the Premiership is a good competition it seems to me that because the clubs and their owners are so highly competitive, rather than helping one another they are often looking to get the upper hand.

There is a skill in running a professional rugby club to a high enough standard to make your team successful. However, sometimes you are left wondering whether the money brought in by investors like CVC is channelled to the benefit of all areas of the game – such as boosting stadiums, facilities, and community projects – or whether it just props up bank balances.

Overall I’d like to see the club owners more joined up, so that you do not get a lone wolf going its own way.

Do what is permitted within the rules to get the best out of what you have got, which is what I’m sure Saracens and Exeter do with their coaching to get their teams to a standard above the rest. But the model that applies to playing standards has to extend throughout the club, including its financial management.

There was a telling European Cup performance by Saracens against Racing last weekend, which showed that up to that point what was happening off the field had not impacted the quality of what they do when they are wearing the club jersey.

That display was magnificent, with 14 men not only holding one of the favourites to win this season’s competition, but going on to beat them.

Saracens face Leinster next in the quarter-final, and that will be very hard, but if they go to Dublin and win it will be another unbelievable moment in their playing history.

The harsh reality is, however, that even if they go on to defend their European title, the season will end in the break-up of this Saracens squad, even though their director of rugby Mark McCall says he intends to stay, and wants to keep as many of the club’s star players as possible.

I suspect there is a standard clause in any of their player contracts – but especially those of their international stars – that they have the right to leave if the club is relegated.

The question following their relegation last weekend is what the players do. Whether you are on the margins of the England squad, or trying to establish yourself in it, you have to be playing in the Premiership shop window to make your case, rather than in training-run matches in the Championship.

It might be different if you are established internationals like Billy and Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell, or Maro Itoje. In their case, they have to have a conversation with Eddie Jones to find out if it is okay that they have a sabbatical season in the Championship.

There might be a few good trips, like going to Jersey, but overall it will be a big mental adjustment going to places where you are playing in front of crowds of 800 people, and playing in games that do not require you to hit peak performance.

Without having read the 103 pages of the Saracens disciplinary ruling, I can understand why the other clubs have such resentment towards the Saracens administration.

They were given a warning back in 2015, and their flagrant disregard for the salary cap after that is taking the mickey. It has nothing to do with the players, who will feel let down, but it will be hard for anyone to have any respect for their administration for years to come.

Saracens have been accused of financial doping, and it cannot be allowed to happen again. What is required is clarity and transparency, with all salary cap loopholes closed. Something is either allowed, or it is not.

Saracens
The Saracens way: In their years of success, Saracens had something money can’t buy. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

It is a pity that the ‘Saracens way’ will now be questioned in every respect, because there is no question that the club developed a very strong playing culture.

Money cannot buy culture, because the culture of the rugby club is instilled by people, and the success that it brought Saracens under Brendan Venter first, and then McCall and Alex Sanderson, cannot be taken away.

Saracens built a team environment that was strong, and demanding, and that offered the players within it genuine support. Players don’t always fit in at some clubs, but everybody in that squad seemed happy to be there – which is surprising because when you are so successful, and there is such competition for places, there is usually someone who is aggrieved.

That is why it is sad that this will be the the current squad’s last season together, some because of retirement, and some because of moving on to other clubs.

The question of whether Saracens would have won the titles they did  had they not cheated is irrelevant to me. They will be tarnished, but I would not make them hand anything back, because there are simply too many variables to say any other team would have won them.

The remainder of the Premiership campaign will have a weird feeling about it, because, even though they have gone, Saracens will continue to play.

I have sympathy for everyone at Saracens not involved in the salary cap avoidance.

It has put jobs in jeopardy, and for the players, supporters, and local community, it must be so disappointing because it is a sudden, premature end to their era of success.

JEREMY GUSCOTT

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