‘We look down on football but we are like everyone else’ - rugby chastened by Saracens scandal

Maro Itoje of Saracens celebrates Saracens' Champions Cup final over Leinster last season. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Maro Itoje of Saracens celebrates Saracens' Champions Cup final over Leinster last season. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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Chris Robshaw has declared the pinnacle of English rugby “illegal” and accused Saracens of cheating after they were punished for breaches of salary cap regulations.

Saracens were handed a 35-point deduction in this season’s Gallagher Premiership and fined more than £5 million on Tuesday, although both sanctions will be suspended while the club – who described the action as “heavy-handed” – appeal against them.

The European champions risked another financial penalty yesterday by failing to turn up for the 2019-20 season launch of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in Cardiff.

Former England captain Robshaw was scathing of his criticism of Saracens, saying the London club had dragged rugby union’s reputation through the mud.

“It’s not great, the game we love is in the world eye and the pinnacle of English rugby is illegal,” said Harlequins skipper Robshaw. “I think it puts our sport in a very dangerous place. We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, we look down on this and that and say how it is but we are like everyone else. This is cheating to a certain extent and it’s not a good situation for our sport to be in.

“Whether it’s them [Saracens] or someone else, it’s not a thing we pride ourselves on.

“As a sport, we have got to take the damage that comes with that now and I’m sure it will be like that for a while.

“It will not be easy for our sport to move forward, we have got some damage control to do.”

In 2015, Saracens were one of two clubs who reached confidential agreements with Premiership Rugby Limited – the league’s governing body – over salary cap issues.

The league was accused at the time of turning a blind eye to any misdemeanours and wiped the slate clean to the dismay of some clubs. So, while Saracens have been under scrutiny for some time over their management of the cap, the latest findings only apply to the last three seasons and do not take into account the investigation of 2015.

“It’s one of those things that has been spoken about for a long time among players and the wider public,” Robshaw said. “When you look at their squad, it’s a pretty big squad of international players and I think you don’t have to be a genius to work some of these figures out.

“It looks like it’s started to be dealt with [by Premiership Rugby Limited]. Is it finished? I don’t know, but hopefully it’s going in the right direction and we can get back to a level playing field where we want to compete because that’s what the salary cap is about.

“It’s making sure everyone has a chance, everyone has the same level of funding, can compete and we have a competitive league.”

Exeter have lost the last two Premiership finals to Saracens, but the Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter does not expect their rivals to be stripped of their titles. “If this is upheld it’s pretty obvious those titles have been won unfairly,” Baxter said.

“If you’re asking me would I like to walk into Sandy Park and see three Premiership trophies there, I would love to.

“In reality do I see that happening? No. There are too many other factors that come into play.

“I believe the way we played in the final last year would have beaten any other team in the Premiership.

“But the whole truth is if Saracens had been operating with a different group of players last season they may not have got to the final and if a different team had been there they might have outperformed us on the day.”

Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe has suggested Saracens should be relegated from the Premiership and Baxter admitted he can understand where he was coming from.

Saracens were due to be represented at European rugby’s glittering launch in Cardiff by director of rugby Mark McCall and captain Brad Barritt, but neither attended.