Rugby giants face $9.9m fine for cheating
In what is being dubbed the biggest story in English club rugby history, Premiership and European champions Saracens are facing a 35 point deduction and $9.9 million fine for breaching salary cap regulations over the last three seasons.
This is not the news eight of England's World Cup squad, still reeling from a 20-point defeat to South Africa in the final, wanted to confront after returning home.
The maximum penalty of 35 points deducted and the $9.9 million fine - the largest ever handed out in English club rugby - comes following a seven-month investigation from Premiership Rugby (PRL) into Saracens' practices over the past nine months after it was revealed their most high profile players entered into investment or property partnerships with the club chairman, Nigel Wray.
Saracens have won five English domestic titles in the past nine years and three European crowns from the last four.
Last season they pulled off the double.
Two of those domestic titles came in the time frame Premiership Rugby have been investigating, with Saracens winning 53 of 72 matches.
Their stacked squad includes England Test stars Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis, Elliot Daly along with Lions and Welsh fullback Liam Williams, Springboks prop Vincent Koch and New Zealand-raised Scotland international Sean Maitland.
A statement from Premiership Rugby read: "The decision of the independent panel is that Saracens Rugby Club failed to disclose payments to players in each of the seasons (2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19).
"In addition the club is found to have exceeded the ceiling for payments to senior players in each of the three seasons.
"The salary cap regulations stipulate that a points deduction may be imposed in the current season (2019-20) only. The sanction has no bearing on any other domestic or European competition."
The punishment drops Saracens to the foot of the Premiership table ahead of their fourth game of the season on minus 26 points, leaving the squad facing an uphill battle to avoid relegation.
England's domestic salary cap, which sits at $13 million excluding two marquee players, aims to level the playing field for all clubs in the league.
Saracens responded strongly and will seek a review of the decision by an arbitration body. The review can only be on the basis there has been an error of law, the decision is irrational or contains procedural unfairness.
Sanctions will be suspended pending the outcome of the appeal.
There is also, however, the possibility other clubs will call for Saracens to be stripped of titles.
The announcement of this punishment is thought to have been delayed to avoid derailing England's World Cup campaign.
In a statement Saracens said they were "shocked and disappointed" by the outcome.
"The club is pleased the panel acknowledged it did not deliberately attempt to breach the salary cap and steadfastly maintains that player co-investments do not constitute salary under the regulations. This view is supported by independent legal and professional experts," the statement read.
"The club will continue to vigorously defend this position especially as PRL precedent already exists whereby co-investments have not been deemed part of salary in the regulations.
"As previously stated, the club made administrative errors relating to the non-disclosure of some transactions to PRL and for this we apologise.
"We are pleased to confirm we now have a robust governance framework in place and this will be overseen by an external counsel to ensure the Club follows best practice.
"Furthermore, it is the club's belief that the panel's narrow interpretation of the regulations is detrimental to player welfare across the league and is damaging the development of elite level rugby in the UK."
This article originally appeared on the NZ Herald and was reproduced with permission