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Jackman on Saracens: How much is enough, and how much do you want to destroy them?

‘If Nigel Wray wanted to hide this, do you not think he could have hidden it better?’

Then-Saracens' chairman Nigel Wray celebrates Champions Cup success with Maro Itoje in 2017.
Then-Saracens' chairman Nigel Wray celebrates Champions Cup success with Maro Itoje in 2017.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

BERNARD JACKMAN JOINED Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on this week’s Rugby Weekly podcast to look ahead to the Andy Farrell era and pick an Ireland XV to face Scotland for next week’s Guinness Six Nations opener based on his own personal preferences.

Thursday’s episode began, however, with an in-depth discussion about the Saracens salary-cap saga. Jackman gave his interpretation of events based on his industry insight and experiences in head-coaching roles, and while he stressed he wasn’t keen to defend the Premiership and European champions, he does feel relegation was too harsh a punishment for Sarries’ financial infractions — and a botch-job on behalf of Premiership Rugby.

Former Saracens chief Nigel Wray has since released a statement apologising to the club’s fans for what he described as his “ill-considered approach to matters relating to salary cap compliance”, although it remains unclear as to whether this was in direct response to the podcast.

You can listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get yours. Below is a section of the Sarries chat in written form.

Bernard Jackman: “From Saracens’ point of view, Premiership Rugby aren’t exactly neutral in this: they’ve got 12 stakeholders — 11 ‘others’ in whose best interests it is that Saracens fail and Saracens get relegated. You can imagine Wasps, London Irish, Worcester, Bath this season, Bristol aren’t too far away, Leicester — they have been given a reprieve, because Saracens were coming. Saracens were going to stay up despite starting 35 points down, and now they (the other clubs) have been given five or six months to get their houses in order and plan for the future.

“If you look at it from Saracens’ point of view — and I’m not here to fight their case or whatever — but they had legal advice that the payments they were making to players fell within the rules of the cap, okay? Now, obviously, Premiership Rugby’s legal team have decided that’s not the case. But it’s not clear-cut.

“Tax laws and business and sport — there’ll always be varying points of view. Saracens’ legal team could have been right.

People want to just throw Saracens under the bus and ridicule everything they’ve done — and for sure they’ve made mistakes — but my question would be how much is enough, and how much do you want to destroy them? And what is right? And also, is there any neutrality in this?

“I just feel the relegation is probably too much. The relegation is too much.

You do need time to fix it. It’s impossible. I’d the same situation in Grenoble from a different point of view. Our ‘sugar daddy’ passed away, suddenly we were three million down in terms of revenue for the following season, but we had a full book of contracted players and staff. And despite selling two players and despite trying to do everything we could to loan out players, et cetera, there was no way we could get back — not in terms of the salary cap; we were miles off that — but there was no way we could break even.

“But obviously, the year afterwards, we had loads of opportunities because you just don’t re-contract players. So I feel for Saracens from that point of view, that it was going to be incredibly difficult to rectify it in-season for this year.

Realistically, if relegation was going to be the punishment, that should have been the punishment at the start and not give them false hope of chasing a 35-point deficit and paying the fine.

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saracens-v-racing-92-heineken-champions-cup-pool-four-allianz-park Wray watches Sarries' pool match against Racing at Allianz Park. Source: Adam Davy

Jackman said that he understands why Sarries wouldn’t wish to open their books to a league organisation consisting mostly of their direct competitors, expressing his belief that it was an “honourable” thing for the club to not want their players’ salaries publicised — particularly considering many of those players will likely have to negotiate with new clubs in the summer.

Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey, meanwhile, questioned the validity of the aforementioned legal advice which Wray received, while Jackman explained why — to his mind — Wray wasn’t attempting to break the rules in his payments to limited companies set up in players’ names.

Murray: “Saracens — they got legal advice to say, ‘We can go ahead and do this.’ So someone has told them… ‘Cause Nigel Wray is not an idiot — he’s a very successful businessman as are many others involved in the club. They were told that they can go ahead and do that.

“You made the point off the air, Gav, the ones they really needed to get the go-ahead off were Premiership Rugby and the other clubs, and confirm it with them. It seems incredibly naive for someone like Nigel Wray, who is that successful, to think that he can sign up for the regulations and rules of PRL and then try to do something outside of those but not okay it with them.”

Bernard: Yeah, but like, if Nigel Wray wanted to hide this, do you not think he could have hidden it better? I mean, we hear about how Premiership Rugby used Harlequins’ information — Harlequins went off and looked up the companies registrar in London, saw the Vunipola brothers with Nigel Wray [in business terms], saw other investments… I mean, I would question whether, if Nigel Wray was afraid of this, he would be so transparent. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s not been transparent’, but once you divert money into a company, it’s there to be seen and found — particularly if the company name is ‘Vunipola Properties Ltd’! It’s not clandestine. Like, there are ways people like Nigel Wray can get money to people in a much more underhanded way, through offshore accounts, et cetera, so let’s look at that as well and say, Nigel Wray, he’s nobody’s fool, he obviously felt that the legal advice and financial advice — and it’s PWC, here, who valued Maro Itoje; it’s not a backstreet accountancy firm — [was sound advice]. You pay your fees to these companies and you hope that they’re giving you sound advice.

“In fairness, he lost this case, but who’s to say he didn’t believe he was going to win it?”

Gavan: “I’m sure he believed he’d win it, and I’m sure when he got the legal advice he took it as being sound. But what I would argue is that it was naive to trust legal advice in a situation that isn’t so much legal. Like, the salary cap and all of the associated rules are essentially made up. We’re not talking about criminal law — we’re talking about a set of rules within a sport. The rules are made up by [an organisation largely composed of] your rivals. So, to trust a completely external source, to me, was incredibly naive.

Murray: Why not just check? That’s what I can’t understand. Why not just make sure that this is not going to result in, say, a points deduction or whatever? Obviously, they have a massive issue with the salary cap and they have for years — they’ve been on the record about that. And essentially, behind all this, what they’re actually doing with the players, I think, is good, because they’re supporting guys. It’s a horrific job, being a professional rugby player. You’re battering your body, you’re putting your health on the line every weekend. And setting them up for afterwards is a good thing. I think rugby players are probably underpaid for the things they do in that short career frame. But they (Saracens) signed up and agreed to the salary cap, and for them to not make sure that this was above-board with the rest of the league just seems crazy to me.

The lads continued their dissection of the Sarries saga before turning their attention towards Ireland and the Six Nations, with Jackman explaining why he would select Will Addison at full-back for Ireland even if Jordan Larmour was fully fit.

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the ever-greying Saracens saga and pick his personal Ireland XV to face Scotland

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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