Saracens’ point deduction is a sanction many had expected for a long time – Nick Powell takes a look at what it all means for Exeter Chiefs.
Saracens, the dominant force in England and Europe in recent years, have been caught breaking Premiership Rugby’s salary-cap regulations. After collecting a hat-trick of Champions Cup trophies in the last four seasons, as well as three more domestic titles, Mark McCall’s men now find themselves bottom of the table, having been slapped with a 35-point deduction.
Danny Care and Chris Robshaw – stalwarts for England and local rivals Harlequins – accused the London club of “cheating”, with the former saying they should be relegated and stripped of their trophies. Robshaw was more conservative in his response, claiming Sarries’ actions had put rugby in a “dangerous place”.
Harlequins may be close to the European champions in terms of geography, but they are nowhere near them in the table. That’s no slight on the Stoop side; no one in the Premiership poses a genuine threat to Saracens. Except one team.
Quins – who lost numerous players to Sarries – were pleased to see their foes get their comeuppance following a sustained period of salary-cap violation, but Exeter Chiefs weren’t satisfied. Rob Baxter and his recruits were furious.
Until recently, Exeter were one of the lowest-spending teams in the top-flight, Once their joint-domination of the league with Saracens had been established, Chiefs’ wage-bill had to grow. However, the two clubs worked their way to the top in very different ways.
In 2009/10, Sarries reached their first Premiership final, having whipped the chequebook out on several big-name signings the previous summer. Exeter, on the other hand, climbed their way up by making intelligent acquisitions. They would often take a chance on players who had been written off, such as Tom Waldrom, Julian Salvi and Geoff Parling, all of whom were cast aside by Leicester Tigers.
Season after season, they progressed. First, the Chiefs just survived. Then, survival became comfortable, and they began beating some of the big guns that rocked up to Sandy Park. The next targets were earning a place in the Champions Cup, a spot in the play-offs, and appearing in a Premiership showpiece. The Chiefs went from Championship Final to Premiership Final in six years.
Exeter were beaten on that May afternoon in 2016, and it was Saracens who inflicted the defeat, of course. McCall’s side completed a historic double, the first by an English team since 2004. On top of that, no club had won back-to-back Premierships titles in the last five seasons.
Exeter beat them in the following year’s semi-final, with the Chiefs going on to be crowned champions of England after overcoming Wasps at Twickenham. It was a moment celebrated across English Rugby, not just locally. It was the completion of an epic journey.
However, Baxter didn’t see his team kick on from there. Chiefs’ stagnated for two key reasons, with limited squad depth hampering them in Europe. In domestic matters, they endured plenty of heartbreak due to a lack of composure in crunch games. Exeter had two magnificent, table-topping seasons, but both ended with a bitter taste in the mouth after Saracens turned up the heat in the final.
Saracens were cheating everyone, whilst others made countless sacrifices just to keep their team afloat
That anguish would explain recent comments made by Exeter CEO Tony Rowe. Speaking to the BBC, he said of Sarries’ punishment: “We, for a number of years, have suspected they’ve been infringing the salary cap… but, I don’t think the penalty is severe enough. You take away 35 points this year – they could still be in the semi-finals and could still end up at Twickenham”.
Asked to give his verdict of a more suitable penalty, Rowe replied: “Relegation – in professional sport in America, if you’re in breach of the salary cap, you get thrown out completely.”
It is clear to see why the lifelong Chiefs fan had been hurt by Premiership Rugby’s decision. On several occasions, he’d seen his beloved Exeter fall at the last hurdle to a team whose management were cheating. They were cheating everyone, whilst Rowe and those running every other club had to make countless sacrifices just to keep their team afloat.
This is problem that goes beyond the English game. As already mentioned, the limits the salary-cap hinders English clubs on the European front, preventing them from adding the necessary quality and depth to their squads. No Premiership team can compete with their continental rivals when it comes to financial might. Well, none except Saracens.
In late December, Exeter got their Champions Cup campaign off to a winning start, and they’ll be aiming to make the last-four for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they must appreciate and take advantage of the incredible opportunity they have been presented with in the Premiership.
Never again will a neutral supporter choose to cheer for Sarries when they lock horns with the Chiefs.
With Saracens currently on -18 points as we approach the sixth round of fixtures, their chances of qualifying for the playoffs are remote. Though Exeter’s start has been far from perfect, they’ll believe they can take back what’s theirs by right – the English throne.
Though Rowe and Baxter both feel immensely frustrated by what has transpired, they must accept they will never be given the titles for 2016, 2018 and 2019. This is not justice, but Premiership Rugby are not going to strip Saracens of those triumphs, despite their total disregard for the rules that govern the competition, as well as basic sportsmanship.
This won’t relieve the pain and anger stirring inside the Chiefs and many of their rivals. And yet, there will forever be an asterisk in the history books, reminding people that Saracens’ victories were tainted. There will forever be suspicion around the club. Never again will a neutral supporter choose to cheer for Sarries when they lock horns with the Chiefs.
Nevertheless, the most important thing for Exeter is this. Right now, Saracens’ biggest concern is avoiding relegation. They are out of title contention, and Chiefs have the chance to take a stranglehold on English rugby. Domestic domination begins today, and perhaps that will help launch a European conquest.