Saracens have been docked 35 points and fined £5.36million after being found guilty of breaching the salary cap, in a bombshell ruling that follows a Sportsmail investigation.
In a move that sent shockwaves through the rugby world on Tuesday, and prompted a seething response and an appeal from Saracens, the all-conquering north London club received the biggest sanction in the history of the Premiership.
Despite the unprecedented severity of the sanctions, Sarries’ rivals called for harsher punishments, with Exeter even threatening to boycott the forthcoming Premiership fixture between the clubs.
Premiership Rugby and European champions Saracens have been docked 35 points and fined £5.3m after being found guilty of breaching the salary cap
Owen Farrell (pictured) is among the Saracens players who had co-investment arrangements with owner Nigel Wray
In March, Sportsmail published the findings of a four-month investigation into Saracens and their owner Wray (pictured here with the Premiership trophy after their title triumph in 2018)
The Independent Panel – which conducted a hearing over five days in September and October 2019 – was chaired by the Rt. Hon. Lord Dyson, who was joined on the panel by Aidan Robertson QC and Jeremy Summers.
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 Panel therefore upheld all of the charges. The sanction that has been imposed on Saracens Rugby Club by the panel is:
A total fine of £5,360,272.31 and a total deduction of 35 league points.
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.
Tony Rowe, chairman and chief executive of Exeter Chiefs, said the penalty was too lenient and that Saracens should be thrown out of the Premiership. Asked about the prospect of a boycott of their fixture on December 29, he said: ‘We will consider it.’
Others called for them to be stripped of the titles they won while they were breaching the cap — two Premierships and two European Cups. But retrospective action is not possible in the rules.
Sarries immediately appealed, meaning they will play on Saturday against Gloucester still on nine points rather than bottom on -26 points. The appeal could delay the whole process until the new year, throwing the season into chaos.
The club, who had nine of their players feature for England at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, are contesting the findings of the independent three-person panel led by a former Supreme Court judge, who ruled that they had ‘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 panel ruled, in reference to Premiership Rugby (PRL)’s £7million salary cap.
The breach is understood to relate to co-investment arrangements between the club’s multi-millionaire owner Nigel Wray and star players including England captain Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy and Mako Vunipola, which were revealed by a Sportsmail exposé in March this year.
Saracens, who informed players of the judgment on Tuesday, said they were ‘shocked and disappointed by these heavy-handed sanctions’. Wray, who is worth an estimated £315m and has been involved with Saracens since 1995, said he was ‘absolutely devastated’ by the decision.
Maro Itoje (left) is one of the high-profile players to have a financial arrangement with Wray
Rowe, whose club have battled with Sarries for supremacy over recent seasons, told Sportsmail: ‘I am unhappy about the whole situation. Of course they were going to appeal it, but it means that effectively we will all be playing them this season with one hand tied behind our back.
‘We are a bit upset that we lost a couple of titles to a club that we understand have broken the regulations. You feel really sorry for your own players. All right, they were beaten by a better team on the day but only a better team because somebody has spent considerably more on assembling that team than you have spent.’
John Kingston, the former Harlequins director of rugby, said: ‘The general consensus within the game is that the £5m-plus fine and the points deduction cannot rectify what has gone on for years.
‘I have to say I will not be alone in thinking the trophies and medals Saracens won during the proven period should be taken from them.’
Wray added in his statement: ‘For over 25 years, I have put my heart and soul into the game I love. Together we have created something incredibly special with the Saracens Family, both on and off the field.
HOW SPORTSMAIL LED THE WAY…
‘This is absolutely devastating for everyone associated with this amazing group of players, staff, partners and fans. It has been acknowledged by the panel that we never deliberately sought to mislead anyone or breach the cap and that’s why it feels like the rug is being completely pulled out from under our feet.’
The club also issued a statement. ‘Saracens 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.’
In light of Sarries’ appeal, Sport Resolutions, who convened the independent panel chaired by Rt Hon Lord Dyson QC that reached Tuesday’s verdict, will now have to find three more panel members to conduct the review.
England star Elliot Daly (left) will be joining Saracens this season after leaving Wasps last term
SARACENS Q&A: WHY ARE THEY GUILTY AND WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
What has Saracens been found guilty of?
A specialist disciplinary panel has found Saracens guilty of breaching Premiership Rugby’s (PRL) salary cap, and has imposed the maximum points deduction of 35 points and a fine of £5.36million. PRL say that they brought charges in June following a seven-month investigation. The scope of the case remains confidential but the judgment said: ‘The decision is that Saracens 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.’ Sportsmail’s four-month investigation, published in March, found that the club’s multi-millionaire owner Nigel Wray went into business with some of his best players, through investment companies set up in the names of the players, with Wray as a shareholder. Wray had previously contested that ‘investment is not salary’ and likened these arrangements to his public support of coffee and brewing companies set up by players.
What is the salary cap?
The salary cap is intended to level the playing field within the Premiership by setting a limit on what clubs can spend on their playing and academy squads. The basic salary cap is £7m but this does not include the salaries of two marquee players and extras such as injury credits. Premiership Rugby employs a salary cap manager whose role it is to oversee the cap and investigate clubs where necessary. Each season, clubs must submit a projected salary cap audit, and then a declaration on what they spent at the end of each season.
How did England stars get caught up in this mess?
England captain Owen Farrell, who is a graduate of the Saracens academy, went into business with Wray in 2017 as shareholders in an investment company called Faz Investments Ltd. Mako and Billy Vunipola were made directors of a company called Vunprop Limited in 2017, which names the two players and Wray as its shareholders. Similarly, Maro Itoje – who has been at Saracens since 2012 – and Wray are shareholders of a firm MN Property Solutions Limited, which was set up in 2016. Richard Wigglesworth, meanwhile, is a joint shareholder with Wray in Wiggy9 Investments Limited.
Are the players guilty of anything?
The judgment concerns Saracens only, and takes no action against the players, and there has been no allegation of wrongdoing directly levelled at the players. The salary cap is a matter for clubs to comply with. It is not clear how much the players knew about the operation of the salary cap and whether these arrangements were permitted. The RFU has no power to police the salary cap as it is a PRL regulation, but could choose to launch disciplinary proceedings against players if it was felt their involvement had affected the sport’s reputation.
What happens next?
The Premiership table will be updated with an asterisk against Saracens – rather than taking them down to -26 points – pending any review in the next 14 days. The scope of a review is limited and ‘can only be on the basis that there has been an error of law, the decision is irrational or that there has been some procedural unfairness.’ It is not yet clear whether Saracens have to change their current squad or whether the regulations will change – PRL only recently published this season’s salary cap framework and there were no significant changes.
Will Sarries be stripped of their Premiership titles won in 17-18 and 18-19?
No, PRL say the regulations do not allow for retrospective action.
Does it have any impact on the European Cups they won in 17 and 19?
No, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) have made it clear that this is a Premiership Rugby decision and has no impact on Saracens’s previous EPCR titles or their status in this year’s competition.
Will they actually be relegated to Green King IPA Championship?
Looking at previous seasons this seems unlikely, if they do get a 35-point deduction, but relegation is a possibility, particularly with injuries to key players and World Cup fatigue.
Sportsmail understands the review may not begin until early 2020. The scope of it is limited and ‘can only be on the basis that there has been an error of law, the decision is irrational or there has been some procedural unfairness’.
It has been eight months since Sportsmail published the findings of a four-month investigation into Saracens, revealing the investment partnerships and property arrangements.
The announcement of the sanction was pushed back during the Rugby World Cup so as not to distract England.
Worcester Warriors said: ‘Warriors support the action taken. The salary cap regulations are there for good reasons.’
Questions have been asked about how much the players involved in the arrangements knew about the salary cap implications, but there is no allegation of wrongdoing. Sportsmail understands the players are likely to escape any sanction.
Saracens declined to comment when asked if they will have to make any changes to their current squad to comply with the salary cap, and whether the companies involving Wray and players would be closed.
PRL declined to disclose the arrangements that were found to have breached the cap.
Saracens prop Vincent Koch won the Rugby World Cup with South Africa on Saturday
HOW IT ALL UNFOLDED…
March 4 – Sportsmail investigation sends ripples through sport with revelations about investment partnerships between Nigel Wray and Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and Billy Vunipola and property-sharing arrangements
March 5 – Clubs and former players call for formal probe into Saracens
March 6 – Sportsmail understands a rival club has hired forensic accountants to look into Saracens
March 7 – Sportsmail reveals Maro Itoje has company linked to Nigel Wray
March 11 – Nigel Wray releases a statement in response to Sportsmail’s investigations, saying ‘Investment is not salary’ and ‘The Club is open and transparent with the salary cap manager and we proactively disclose co-investments when they occur, even though we are under no obligation to do so. We respect the rules and the salary regulations that are in place.’
March 13 – Premiership Rugby will not confirm whether Nigel Wray’s understandings of the salary cap rules are correct
April 9 – Sportsmail understands Premiership Rugby interrogating former Saracens players
April 10 – Premiership Rugby announce formal review into Saracens after it is found the club did not disclose all details of co-investment partnerships
August 3 – Rival clubs demand update on salary cap review, telling Sportsmail they are being ‘kept in the dark’
September 3 – Sportsmail reveals that the matter has been passed to specialist arbitrators Sport Resolutions
September 24 – Clubs dismiss idea of an out-of-court settlement being made with Saracens at conclusion of disciplinary proceedings
October 26 – Sportsmail reveals that Saracens’s group head of finance Bernard Van Zyl – who had responsibility at the club for managing the salary cap – has left, along with fellow director Nick Leslau, who had been at the club for over 20 years
November 5 – Saracens were docked 35 points and fined £5.3million after being found guilty of breaching the salary cap