Nothing lasts forever, not least in professional sport. Less than 72 hours after England had been hammered 32-12 by South Africa in the World Cup final in Tokyo in early November, a different kind of typhoon ripped through the UK newspapers. Premiership Rugby, following months of deliberation, announced that Saracens had been found guilty of breaching the salary cap regulations, fined them an unprecedented £5.36m and initially docked them 35 league points. They stopped short of stripping Sarries of their titles but with large sections of the game in uproar the points deduction was ultimately increased by a further 70 points to guarantee their relegation to the Championship.
Few tears were shed in the West Country and Rob Baxter, in particular, was less than sympathetic. Having spent hours poring over spreadsheets to try to work out how to build a competitive Premiership squad beneath the cap ceiling, Exeter’s director of rugby was unimpressed by the argument that Saracens were simply guilty of innocent naivety or muddled accounting.
“Everyone thought there was something wrong for a number of years. But that’s different to it being blatantly exposed. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s not been exposed as a little bit of an accident.
“Even the little bit they found, percentage-wise, makes an incredible difference within your squad. You’re never really needing to lose a player because you can spread the money around and keep everyone happy. People look at it and say: ‘That’s only four or five players.’ It’s not. Not at all. It means you can keep your players on a wage level where it’s not worth them moving to another club.
“I’m not saying Saracens don’t do a lot of things well. They’re well coached and they get the importance of building a good team environment and having a good culture. But on top of that they get to do it with 30 better players than any other squad can put together. That’s the bit that has bugged me more than anything else. When I actually found out how deliberately it had been done and for how long … even then there was no apology, not even a hint of one.”
From the players’ perspective there was also a nagging sense of professional and personal loss: of potential earnings, bonuses and international recognition. Had Saracens adhered by the letter and spirit of the rules and not had such a stellar squad, would they have won all those trophies and harvested all those caps?
Don Armand, among the Exeter players regularly overlooked for international honours, also flagged up a significant human dimension. “We’d been sticking to the salary cap. That means you’re not getting as much money as you know some of their guys are getting. If you go to Sarries and you’ve got a coinvestment arrangement and your post-career is sorted, there is much less stress. You can just focus on your rugby and your fun trips away. It makes it a lot easier to focus on rugby day in, day out.”
When Armand looked around the Exeter dressing room, he was also reminded of those players who had left the club prematurely because the club, in order to stay under the cap, could not afford to keep everyone. “We wouldn’t necessarily have won those three finals we lost but if we had won a couple of them it would have benefited individuals who have subsequently left. They would have had a much better CV and their career-earning potential would have been much better, as has happened when a Saracens player has left to join a French side.
“There’s also a lot of Exeter guys who should have played for England and haven’t. I could name a few. Even those guys who have been in and out have lost out, not just on career-changing money but career-changing reputations. Those frustrations get brushed under the carpet publicly – from an individual perspective there’s a lot that people don’t see.”
On top of that, from Armand’s perspective, was something else hidden from the public gaze: the disappointment felt by the backroom staff. “There are so many dynamics that aren’t recognised. The people upstairs who work really hard in the ticket office, the community guys. We’re representing them all. No one ever feels sorry for them but they’re also affected. The more successful we are, the more successful the whole stadium is, the better their jobs are. It has a big knock-on effect.”
On top of all that, for Armand, was the simplest, most primal disappointment of all. “You’ll never be able to replace a Sunday all-day piss-up with your old mates in celebration of a final victory. The memories you make last for ever. It’s the things you can’t count that irritate me more than the money.”
Tony Rowe, on his squad’s behalf, was similarly upset and angry that Saracens had unfairly tilted the playing field. For a while, the Exeter chief executive declined to rule out legal action and even called for the authorities to go further. “Saracens should have their titles taken away. Their names should be taken off the Premiership trophy for the seasons they won it while being in breach of the cap.”
If anything, having absorbed the full details of Lord Myners’s exhaustive report into Saracens’ salary cap indiscretions, his views have subsequently hardened. “It’s proven – and the report’s there for everyone to read – that for the last three years they’ve been winning trophies they’ve cheated. We’re not saying we should have the trophies but they should not have their name on the trophy because they won those titles by cheating. We don’t want the trophy, but they shouldn’t have it.
“I’ve known some of our lads since they were 15. At the end of last season’s final they were broken and in tears. They got beaten fair and square, yes, but by a superior team that we couldn’t afford by staying within the salary cap. I’m massively disappointed for the lads.”
Rowe also argued that the Saracens chairman, Nigel Wray, should not necessarily have to shoulder all the blame for a situation that led Lord Myners to conclude it was “overwhelmingly clear … that trust has been damaged” across the English club game.
“Other people must have known what was going on. OK, they may have been told by Nigel and his advisers that it was above board, but they were kidding themselves. They still feel they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re not regretful at all.
“I’ve been involved in sport since my early 20s. How can someone congratulate themselves or slap each other on the back knowing you’ve fiddled the system to get there?”
As for those wondering if Exeter, the solitary Premiership club to have made a profit in the preceding financial year, were entirely above board themselves, Rowe had a crisp response ready. “I’m certain we’re within the salary cap. I wouldn’t be saying all this about Saracens if I wasn’t certain we play by the rules.”
The only real consolation was that Exeter would no longer need to worry about their rivals for the next two seasons, but their coaches were swift to warn their players not to assume the title was now a gimme. “It was the elephant in the room,” said Rob Hunter, the forwards coach. “We said: ‘Right, let’s make sure this is not a distraction. There’s still another 10 teams who all want to beat you.’”
It was time to start looking forwards, not back.
‘Surely you should have a bit of humility’: Exeter v Saracens, 29 December 2019
The lights are fast going out on Sarries: their quarterback Owen Farrell is sacked behind the gain line, their forwards are being driven backwards. When Nic White and Duncan Taylor tangle near the touchline, players from both sides rush in and a mass fracas takes place next to the advertising hoardings. The substituted Harry Williams, previously in the sin-bin, gets involved and is shown a red card by Wayne Barnes for his trouble.
Later, a different narrative emerges. The confrontation was significantly inflamed, according to the home players, by a comment directed at White by Billy Vunipola. In the view of England’s No 8, Sarries had hoisted the silverware when it really mattered and this result changed little. Baxter still argues the visitors were out of order: “When you see how disappointed our players have been and the things they’ve not had to celebrate and you then hear a Saracens player telling Nic White: ‘Unlucky, you haven’t got a Premiership winner’s medal,’ that sticks in the craw. That’s what some of their lads were saying. They were rubbing in the fact they were quite happy to cheat to win titles. If people had experienced that, they would really understand what it has been like.”
Among Exeter’s players the widespread view is that Saracens have “a reputation of saying narky things when they lose”. Armand believes they have shown insufficient respect at times to him and his teammates. “It’s not necessarily their players’ fault but when they’ve won all those titles and been as gloaty as some of them have been … if you’ve been caught cheating and you know you’ve done it the wrong way and that cheating has helped you get those titles, surely you should have a bit of humility?”
Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of Exeter Chiefs by Robert Kitson is
published by Polaris on 26 November