Saracens face unprecedented penalty in wake of salary cap

Saracens are in hot water, there is no doubt. 35 points down and £5.36m out of pocket – is English rugby about to witness the fall of a dynasty? As an Exeter fan, it is hard to turn a sympathetic eye to Sarries’ plight.

After a nine-month investigation into suspected salary cap breaches, to have been found to have breached the pay ceiling (pending) is a long-awaited victory for fans across the Premiership board, many of whom would see the side stripped of their titles.

The Sarries have been a dominating force for years; winning the English Premiership for the first time in 2010. A glorious victory over defending champions, Leicester Tigers, saw captain Steve Borthwick raise the trophy at Twickenham in front of a sell-out, 80,000 strong crowd. It was four years until the side lifted the cup again.

The season of 2014-15 came and went, seeing Saracens take to the podium. With internationally renowned, stand out names gracing the team sheet – the likes of Farrell, Wigglesworth and both Vunipola brothers for example – there was no doubt that Sarries owner Nigel Wray was mining diamonds.

With the most advanced training academy in the Premiership, the club was identifying, cultivating and running a treasure chest of players and with these players came a team value that could not feasibly be contained by a £5m distributed salary cap.

Even with two player salaries lying outside of the restriction and a recent increase to £7m, Nigel Wray and his coaches were asking too much of their budget to retain such a talented squad – they needed another way to financially incentivise their players.

The suspect behaviour kicked off in 2016. That year, Graham Cowan – a shareholder of The Wildman Project Ltd alongside Wray – established MN Property Solutions. A month later, Wray and Itoje both joined MN Property Solutions and listed player as a joint shareholder.

Scrum Half Richard Wigglesworth jumped in on the action soon after, becoming the sole director of Wiggy9 Ltd in April 2017. The company, incorporated as DanCallie Ltd the previous January by an associate of Wray, was renamed Wiggy9.

During the transition, Founder and Director, Daniel Van Den Heever resigned and was replaced by Wigglesworth who now holds a 65 per cent share in the company alongside Wray’s 45 per cent.

The same year, the same story. The ironically named VunProp Ltd came about after ShahDan Ltd’s director Van Den Heever resigned and was replaced by the Vunipola brothers.

Left only with Wray, the brothers became joint shareholders with the owner when the company was renamed, in doing so, adding another player-partnership venture to Wray’s portfolio.

Later the same year, Farrell too became a joint shareholder with Wray, this time of the financial management firm Faz Investments Ltd. The former director of Saracens Rugby and current director of Premier Teams Promotion, Kamal Shah was responsible for the company’s instantiation. Premier Teams Promotion manages Saracens’ finances and so it seems, Farrell’s too.

As highlighted by the investigative board, the club’s failure to disclose some player payments over the last 5 years leading up to the current season would suggest that these companies, aside from providing team members with valuable, transferable skills in wealth and property management, are topping up competitive salaries in an effort to ensure player loyalty.

A misappropriation of funds as such creates a clear disillusion amongst the efforts of countless sides in both English and European rugby.

Called cheats by Robshaw, thieves by Care and with calls for immediate relegation by Exeter owner Tony Rowe, Saracens are truly under fire.

One cannot help but wonder whether the attacks are rooted in a long-term distaste for the Londoners but either way, provided this penalty is delivered, silverware will be the least of the Saracens’ concerns this season.

For the sake of the game, they must keep their heads above water.


Image: Charlie via Wikimedia Commons