Monday 19 August 2019

Neil Francis: 'There are a few reasons why nobody in England like Saracens - here's one of them'

Saracens celebrate a turnover during the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Saracens celebrate a turnover during the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

At a class reunion where all the classmates are aged 70 or over, one of the old boys turns up with a dolly bird half his age. This fella had always been a bit of a dandy, but despite his wealth his old mates still could not believe that he had managed to get hold of this girl.

"How did you get her? Did you lie and tell her you were 50?"

"No . . . I lied and told her I was 90."

Saracens play Leinster in the Heineken Cup final next Saturday at St James' Park in Newcastle upon Tyne. Quite possibly there are more people in England hoping that Saracens lose than there are people outside Leinster hoping that the blue side fail.

Saracens are admired for what they have achieved but are practically friendless. Their current hegemony has a finite lifespan and their dominance is based on tenuous foundations.

Nigel Wray, their 70-year-old benefactor, has a net worth of £315m and he has indulged himself with that money by inflating a small unfashionable club from Barnet into European heavyweights. Saracens are entirely dependent on Wray for their very survival. It is a delicate situation where you are dependent on a doughty 70-year-old for your financial subsistence. Wray may live until he is 90, but the bottom line is that when he goes, Saracens go.

I do admit that I respect Wray for his philanthropic approach to sponsoring his rugby club. He has put his money where his not inconsiderable mouth is. The social strand of the club also seems to be relatively thriving and there is a strong sense of brotherhood within the squad, and indeed the club. They have been reasonably innovative in terms of things like where they play some of their competitive games, choosing on occasion to play them outside of London or England. They promote a strong sense of bonding and are known for having a well-organised social calendar - they go on the beer!

That is where the admiration ends. The way Saracens have conducted themselves financially is a cause for concern. The company, Saracens Ltd, which is owned by Premier Team Holdings Ltd, has almost £50m of retained losses which only this year had to be converted to equity or they could not have continued to trade.

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On turnover of £18m they lost just under £4m. The hole only got bigger and the push to jump their turnover only succeeded in an increase of £400,000. Wray, while he is still alive or healthy, can sustain these losses, but unless he has a deal done with the almighty this stream of red ink can only stop with a shudder. It will be interesting to see how benevolent his estate will be with his rugby project. Hopefully as kind as the corporate enforcement authorities have been.

Pet projects have to abide by the rules and in this case by those of a statutory sporting body. It's a beastly inconvenience. There are another 12 Premiership clubs and they don't all have Nigel Wray's considerable financial resources to build a successful squad, otherwise the league becomes a case of how big your wallet is. You could, if you had the money and the inclination, go out and buy the All Black squad and put them in your club colours, but that is no good for club or country and so the salary cap was introduced by the RFU.

The cap was set this year at £7m, which excludes the salary of two marquee players. The suspicion persists that Saracens have been flouting the cap. It is a minor inconvenience which could easily be circumvented. There did not seem to be any political will to investigate things too closely. Saracens were a bulk supplier to the England and indeed the Lions squads. They also presented 57 per cent of their squad as home-grown talent, the highest in the Premiership. Vested interests probably got in the way of a serious investigation. The golden goose would be allowed to lay as many eggs as she wanted.

Rules are rules though, otherwise they could all use fake vials of blood or put all their players on a systematic doping programme. If you are paying all of the best players too much money to attract them to your club, then you have an unfair advantage over everyone else. You can win the league every year but you are effectively cheating.

There is a term in the legal world - Suppresio Veri - the concealment of truth. The Premiership Rugby salary cap managers learned that Saracens had circumvented the cap and said that it had not been diclosed. This included, they said, sharing businesses with some players and also co-owning houses with some former players. Some of Wray's star players had limited companies - Vuniprop Ltd (the Vunipola Brothers), FAZ Investments Ltd (Owen Farrell), Wiggy9 Ltd (Richard Wigglesworth) and MN Property Solutions Ltd (Maro Itoje). set up, as Wray stated, to enhance the "entrepreneurial spirit and future of our players". That was their explanation of a "minor internal oversight".

The player salary cap rules state that in relation to connected parties, "Any company, trust, partnership or other body, organisation or mechanism established or operating directly or indirectly in whole or in part for the benefit of or in respect of any or all of the categories of person referred to in this sub-paragraph about connected parties."

It means that all these limited companies and their revenues have to be included when it comes to assessment of the £7m cap. So, Saracens have players in their squad who, by law, should not be there. Not the done thing, old bean! So Saracens win the league on the back of players who should not be in their squad.

It's just one of the reasons why nobody likes them in the England. Take five or six players out of their starting XV that played against Munster and suddenly you have the semblance of a level playing field. Then tell Jerome Garces to look over his shoulder to see that Saracens were offside all day long and all season long.

The financial and governance rules are not the only ones they break season in, season out.

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