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Rugby’s the poorer …

The Aviva Premiership season ground on at the weekend: Leicester Tigers 22 Northampton Saints 14; Exeter Chiefs 44 Sales Sharks 16; London Irish 40 Wasps 40; London Welsh 17 Saracens 68; Bath 50 Gloucester 30; Newcastle Falcons 37 Harlequins 21. These results leave the play-off semi-finals as Northampton Saints (as befits the club that finished 1st in the regular season) hosting Saracens (4th) and Bath (2nd) hosting Leicester Tigers (3rd).

So far so good.

And yet the big story of the last four days – ignoring England centre Manu Tuilagi’s ‘implosion’ over pleading guilty to assault (a taxi driver held by the throat and two female police officers pushed in the chest) which resulted in him being banned from playing for England until the 2016 Six Nations just days before Stuart Lancaster announces his initial Rugby World Cup 45-man training squad this coming Wednesday – was the article by Owen Slot at page 17 of the Sports Section of The Times on Saturday 16th May 2015 entitled How Saracens Stalled Cap Inquiry.

If you are not a reader of The Times, habitual or occasional, you may have missed it. My practice is to read the broadsheet newspapers on line but in addition buy The Times and the Daily Telegraph anyway every day.

I do not wish to claim any of the credit for Mr Slot’s work or journalism and my preference here would have been simply to provide a National Rust link to said article and let you read it for yourself. Sadly, because of Mr Murdoch’s practice of creating a ‘subscription wall’ around his newspapers I cannot do this – or rather, I decline to pay a subscription to read The Times online when I already buy it anyway in its newsprint form.

Instead today – for the benefit of those who did not read The Times from cover to cover last Saturday – I am going to recount the gist of Mr Slot’s article.

For this I apologise to him for any impression that I am seeking fame, fortune or personal advantage on the back of his excellent efforts. I am not. My sole purpose is to continue my thrust of bashing the rugby union authorities for their naked ‘business’ self-interest in administering what is supposed to be a major world sport that ought, like Caesar’s wife, to be ‘above suspicion’.

The average sports fan – be they straightforward general sports spectator, follower of a particular team, or betting punter – simply wants their competitions to be conducted upon a proverbial level-playing field.

Okay – let’s qualify that. We all accept that, whatever the spirit or letter of the rules, some athletes and some teams – via greater sporting ability, deeper pockets, perhaps chance employment of a better coach than their opponents – will always prevail over others.

That doesn’t matter because somebody has to win. But what the onlooker wants to know is that (on this day, in this place, in this competition) what they have been invited to witness is a genuine contest played within the rules and vagaries of life, including perhaps cruel injuries or questionable disciplinary bans that adversely hampered team selections on the eve of the event.

I wrote a week or two ago in the Rust about the ‘punt into the long grass’ of apparent allegations gaining traction within English Premiership rugby union that at least one ‘top four contending’ club (to wit, Saracens) was in breach of the salary cap. If found guilty within the intended time-frame, the punishment could potentially have included a fine plus the loss of a serious number of league points. Tough, one might think – but, if indeed the allegations were true, these would be nothing more or less than exactly what the miscreant was due.

It was at this point, seeping out via the back door (as it were) we learned that the Premiership clubs had met and decided to ‘postpone’ (or was it ‘suspend’?) the disciplinary process for a number of months, i.e. until after the 2014/2015 season league and Premiership title had been decided.

The argument seemed to be that – to do otherwise – would upset a lot of fans who would effectively have had to accept that the highly-competitive Aviva Premiership this past season was little more than a sham contest, a deceit upon the public, because at least one (and possibly several) clubs in contention at the sharp end of the season had deliberately cheated. Better to ‘park the issue on the sidelines’ (went the argument) than effectively admit to the world that the contest was rigged … i.e. in favour of those clubs who had cheated, and against those who had kept to the rules.

exeterOwen Slot’s article in The Times last Saturday was restrained, well-argued and a devastating indictment of the authorities and power brokers in the Aviva Premiership.

He claimed that in late February, at a meeting at a London hotel, the Premiership clubs voted for the investigation (into a breach of the salary cap) to be suspended. Why? Slot carefully also recorded that Saracens refute the claim they have committed such a breach. Apparently, however, there was a disagreement between the bulk of clubs – who agreed to a suspension but only for a limited period – and the minority (including Saracens and perhaps one or two other clubs who might be thought to have sailed close to the wind) who wanted the investigation suspended for ‘as long as possible’, up to and including forever.

In the end, an agreement was reached that the investigation will resume in June and report within 60 days. This against a background in which threats of challenges being mounted under European and other laws against any findings made that the salary cap had indeed been breached.

Slot stated that, in and around that February hotel meeting, various potential future visions for the Aviva Premiership (or at least a competition outside the Premiership to which the top clubs had moved), one of which was the establishment of ‘no relegation and promotion’ and no salary cap (the very allegation whose suspension had caused the meeting in the first place).

Apparently nobody knows officially which club or clubs (if there is more than one) are under investigation for salary cap breaches. Slot pointed out that most of the other clubs only know that Saracens are in the frame because the Saracens’ former CEO Edward Griffiths admitted it at the February hotel meeting. Nobody else has admitted anything.

Inevitably there was a split in the arguments between those clubs who felt that ‘raking up the past’ would be unhelpful and those that held to the view that – if some clubs had indeed cheated on the salary cap – they should be punished for it.

Apparently, according to Mr Slot, the ‘package’ put to the clubs in February constitutionally had to be accepted unanimously and in its entirety or not at all – abandonment of the salary cap investigation included – and it was only after much heated and complicated negotiations/discussions that this happened.

One might think you couldn’t make this sort of thing up.

Then again – when you think about it – in the heady world of commercial, global, sport almost anything can go … and very probably does.



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About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts