a European Cup under pressure for Saracens

For the Saracens, the champagne of May, during their victory in the European Cup, is now far. GLYN KIRK / AFP

We do not joke with the rules. Accused of having tried to divert to his advantage the "salary cap", this system which imposes a cap on the remuneration of the players, the club of Saracens saw rise against him a good part of English rugby. And the reigning European champions, who face Racing 92 on Sunday, November 17, for the resumption of the European Cup, today graze the abyss.

Heavily sanctioned in early November by the English League – they were removed 35 points withdrawn in the league and impose a fine of more than 5.3 million pounds (6.2 million euros) – the Sarries see their recent and rich charts (European champions in 2016, 2017 and 2019, and England in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019) with an asterisk: and if these titles had been obtained by cheating?

A "real institution"

To understand what is criticized Watford club, in north-east London (but playing games in the British capital), where many stars of the XV of the Rose evolve, we must go back in time.

After lifting the ban on the professionalization of rugby in 1995, elite leagues were born in the northern hemisphere. The English Premiership decided, a few years later (in 1999), to structure its championship around a salary cap. This type of operation is common in American closed leagues (basketball, American football …) and aims to ensure the sustainability of a championship by balancing the workforce.

"The main feature of team sports is that teams need opponents to play, reminds Irish economist Patrick Massey, director of Compecon, who analyzes competitions. Put in economic terms, it takes two teams to "Producing" a match. And the salary cap was put in place to prevent the collapse of the clubs, which was essential to the survival of the League. "

Acquired in 1995 by English billionaire Nigel Wray, the club of Saracens has grown considerably. "Nigel Wray has created the Saracens, because there was not much when he redeemed them, insists Abdelatif Benazzi, former captain of the French team who has played for the English club. At the beginning, we were training on a rented land along the road. He created the identity of the club, made it a real institution, a bit like Arsenal. "

Companies to pay the best players

The tycoon invested heavily in his team, bringing big names of the oval. In addition to international English, a "french touch" embodied by Benazzi or Thomas Castagnède landed, before the advent of "Saraboks", South African players arrived en masse at the turn of the 2010s, after the entry of Johann Rupert, third largest fortune of Africa, in the capital of the club.

"At that time the priority was to make the club known, to make it a global brand and to have results quickly", explained to World Thomas Castagnède, in 2017. This armada has devastated the opposition: five championships in England (2011, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019) and three European Cups have lined the trophy shelf of the club.

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In March this year, a Dailymail investigation came to scorch this "beautiful" story. The British daily revealed how Nigel Wray has bypassed the salary cap by investing in companies created to pay – and therefore retain – his best players, such as Owen Farrell or brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola.

These revelations caused an earthquake in English rugby. After seven months of investigation by an independent commission, the sanction of the League has fallen, an unprecedented severity in rugby.

That's what happens when «A sport applies its rules with robustness», said an editorialist of the Guardian. For him, as for the majority of opponents of the Saracens who claim his automatic relegation, the Watford club has committed to abide by the rules by signing the agreement on the salary cap. And its sanctions in case of "Cheat. "

Not to punish an offender could be dangerous for the survival of the English championship. "Most Premiership clubs are in deficit, insists economist Patrick Massey. If the salary cap collapses, some clubs would risk bankruptcy, which precisely is supposed to prevent this salary cap which must guarantee the future of the league. "

Risk of abandoning Europe

The Saracens defend themselves against all fraud and appealed the sanction – suspended pending a decision. "These investments involve risks, they are not wages"assured Nigel Wray, deemed very close to his players – what confirms Abdelatif Benazzi, who found "Very affected. "

For the English billionaire, who has invested more than 40 million pounds (47 million euros) in the club since he took over, the challenge now is not to see everything he built s 'evaporate.

Sunday, the club will not start the match against Racing 92 with its best players. Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, the brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola, Jamie George …: No England team holder, finalist of the World Cup at the beginning of the month, will be traveling.

A little to preserve organisms, just two weeks after the end of an intense competition, a little to reward the beautiful course of substitutes in the Premiership (three wins in four games). And a lot to prioritize the championship.

"We have to prepare for the worst scenario. Avoiding relegation is now the priority, in front of Europe ", admitted coach Mark McCall, whose team counts – 26 points in the standings if the penalty was to be maintained.

The European Cup is not governed by the same rules (introduced in 2010, the French salary cap is for example superior to its English counterpart). But that does not prevent some former adversaries from Sarries to feel aggrieved.

Unhappy finalist in 2017, the coach of Clermont, Franck Azema did not hide to have "The feeling of being robbed of a title. " "What you are looking for first and foremost in sport is fairness. If the Saracens did not respect the salary cap, it is good that they are sanctioned ", he argued. This season, the European Cup may change hands.


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