Ppioneering lover of English rugby or hateful cheating? The verdict on Saracens continues to swing to impressive wild extremes, even by the standards of a sport that, 24 years into its professional era, still needs something like a balance.
After the premiership decision to be flushed out of the chest and suddenly get macho on the question of its salary cap, the assessment you jour are hateful cheats, but as usual, the dull truth lies somewhere in between.
Saracens and their chairman, Nigel Wray, revealed in their respective statements that the verdict, which has not yet been widely available, found that they had not "deliberately attempted to mislead anyone or violate the cap". If true, it makes the accusation of systematic cheating harder to stand.
In time, it will be possible to publish the details of the specific violations committed by Saracens. The ObserverUnderstanding is that the much-trumpeted joint ventures between Wray and his England stars who have provoked such an uproar are unmatched. Some may not have been registered by Wray for whom the club has been fined and the man himself has apologized, but the practice itself is legitimate in principle and does not contribute to Saracen's alleged overspending.
The reported profits, which are believed to be in the £ 2m range over three seasons, relate to previous talks between the club or third parties and players. They are open to interpretation and their legitimacy or otherwise severely disputed, but they have been dealt with by the ruling and that is why the Saracens do not have to remove any players. The regular salaries that the club pays its players are within the ceiling.
The co-investment tank is allowed as long as the investor pays the market rate for any shareholding, is exposed to the corresponding level of risk and collects any reward. However, determining the level of this market rate is where the problem begins. If an investor pays more than the market rate in a venture, that profit counts as salary. Independent analysts can come up with very different assessments.
Wray is an inveterate investor. He has built his personal fortune by being exceptionally good at it. He really believes he has done nothing wrong, so he is unlikely to take this punishment as a good boy. If and when the first appeal fails for its narrow reasons, he will take the case as far as a multimillionaire can. This will run and run and the loser, as always, will be the rugby union's credibility.
Meanwhile, it is largely clear that the Premier League, like much of the rest of rugby, has had enough of Sarries being too clever for half. Saracens was one of two clubs issued with final, final warnings in 2015 following a litany of cap violations during its 20-year history by several clubs, all of whom were treated gently and internally. An agreement was reached with the two abusive clubs that required each of the 13 elite clubs to agree. One or two took a long time to get around. Now the setback has been furious.
Self-righteousness is in the air. Even just the sight of players from past and present railings against "cheating" is unsatisfactory. After all, it's the players' wages, after all, that's the problem. They are overpaid.
A great deal of sanctification is made for the undoubtedly punitive demands placed on the bodies and souls of the players, how they are underpaid, if anything. But the market is brutally simple: If your industry can't afford your wages – and player salaries are overwhelmingly the biggest cost of a deficit sport – you get overpaid.
The real question, however, is the management of the sport in England. In connection with all attempts by Premier League Rugby to inject an element of independence, the organization is controlled by millionaires competing against each other. No reasonable strategic vision can be realized in these circumstances, nor are measures implemented.
The salary cap is just a device often used by sports that are coherently managed, but such measures, when properly purchased, form a grid of mutually reinforcing policies that close clubs, players and investors in a strict framework.
A salary cap is English rugby's only concession to a regulated system. On its own, it is weak. One mistake is that the players are not signed up for it. The first plank of any regulated system is a collective bargaining agreement that binds all parties, taking from the equation any notion that still hangs over the current dispute that a salary cap represents a restriction on trade.
An independent board to which participants respond unreservedly is the next board. And from these two radiate all the other classic countermeasures – payroll, payroll, minimum wage, player draft, differential funding, a closed league and so on.
The great American and Australian sports operate under a completely different culture than rugby in England (and France). The problem for rugby is that its most powerful nations are economically in a culture dominated by football. Thus, the truly global sport of the world is the only one who can even dream of mixing its professional and amateur games in the same messy system while leaving the rest to the market forces.
Most of rugby's problems worldwide, so much more in England, lead back to this problem. Rugby thinks it can be like football, thinks it sometimes has a moral duty to be. But rugby is not big enough. Until a revision of its governance structures is implemented, crises such as the current will remain entrenched in the system.
Unholy Union: When Rugby Clashed with the Modern World by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans is out now
. (tagsToTranslate) Saracens (t) Premiership (t) Rugby union (t) Sport