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Living in Bahrain for the past couple of years has been terrific viewing for someone who takes any form of interest in Rugby. The Bahrain rugby team has been incredible during that period, winning last year’s West Asia Premiership, losing once in the whole season and they are on course to do something similar again this year.
Last weekend’s thrashing of the Knights Eagles by 92 points to seven further emphasised not just the ability but the ruthless nature of the team. The showdown against the Exiles on February 7 is not one to be missed.
Our entertainment in Bahrain, whilst fantastic, isn’t quite as good as what Saracens fans have been treated to over the last five years. They have won the Premiership Rugby championship four out of the last five years and added to that with three European honours. They have nine players, who were part of England’s World Cup squad, beaten in the final last year.
Unfortunately for them, that particular gravy train of success is coming to an end, for a year at least, as the Premiership Rugby chiefs announced that they will be relegated for the 2020/21 seasons for breaking salary cap rules.
The team had already been given a 35 point deduction and fined £5.4m for the breach which has occurred for the last three years and they were asked to prove immediate cap compliance in order to not face any further sanctions. They declined to do so.
It is a weird dilemma that English rugby currently finds itself in. The policing of the salary cap has many merits, not least it encourages the development of young English talent and their early integration into first team squads and it also ensures a strong level of competition within the league. It is very difficult to acquire a squad of superstars to dominate a league if you cannot pay them what they would otherwise get elsewhere.
The problem comes with the added rule that players are not available for selection for England unless they play within the English leagues, a rule set up as an added incentive to stop players plying their trade in other countries, such as in France, where such salary caps do not exist. Whilst the Rugby Football Union (RFU) has assured players that playing in the second division does not rule them out for selection for national duties, Saracens cannot afford to keep all of their stars and get back below the salary cap. Hence, a number of them will have to find new teams. Add to that the fact that most Premiership Rugby teams have already done their recruitment ready for the new season and will already be spending a sizeable chunk of their caps leaving players in limbo.
A professional sports career is short and whilst playing for your country is undoubtedly the biggest honour, you can’t help but feel the lure of a good payday in France might become all the more tempting if there is uncertainty.
Eddie Jones’ men have become favourites for the next Six Nation’s tournament, down in huge part to their great success at the World Cup and there is also a Lions Tour in South Africa that has to be considered. The last thing selectors need is the headache of players uncertain of their future or even worse, not available for selection completely.
That is not to say that I have great sympathy for Saracens as a club. I am far more on the side of Tony Rowe, chief executive of the Exeter chiefs, who is rather annoyed that the situation was allowed to go on for so long and has ended the way it did. As Rowe pointed out in an interview with the BBC, Saracens had the chance to open up their books or to offer an explanation and they refused to do so. They have chosen relegation of their own accord and acknowledged their mismanagement so for this there is no sympathy.
I do not believe that any player should be punished for a chairman or chief executive’s decision regarding finances. If you are offered a good contract you take it. It isn’t your fault that the rest of the team was also offered those lucrative contracts.
I wonder if the RFU could allow special dispensation for a year for players of Saracens affected by this but my fear is that it would open a can of worms they would rather not deal with. Players are available for selection for national duty no matter where they play for one year? Would teams in other nations even be interested in players for a year only anyway?
Either way, I hope Bahrain’s success doesn’t involve a salary cap breach as I hope to see them win a few more titles in the near future.