Saracens' relegation has put the salary cap issue centre stage. Mark Evans, a former DoR at the club, warns that the problem will recur unless the whole system is overhauled

Mark Evans: “The salary cap hasn’t worked well. The governance model needs fixing”

The plight of Saracens has dominated the game’s news agenda since the reigning Premiership and European champions were docked 35 points and fined £5.4m in early November.

That punishment, for breaching salary cap regulations in each of the three previous seasons, escalated last week because of the club’s failure to take action to comply with the cap this season. They were relegated from the Premiership, prompting renewed demands for the publication of the report into Saracens’ offences.

That document, running to 103 pages, was released yesterday and contains heavy criticism of Saracens from Premiership Rugby’s salary cap manager Andrew Rogers – click here for a report summary by the BBC.

The events of the past week have highlighted the need for change at Premiership Rugby and make points made in this Mark Evans column from late last year even more pertinent…

Saracens' ground, Allianz Park

Club in crisis: the Saracens success story has ground to a halt and flagged up unresolved issues (Getty)

The furore surrounding the decision to fine Saracens more than £5m and dock them 35 points (and now relegate them) has tended to obscure the fact that, ever since its inception in 1998, the salary cap has not operated well, writes Mark Evans.

As an unashamed proponent of a range of equalisation policies, such as a closed league, collective bargaining agreement and differential funding, as well as a flat salary cap linked to average club revenue, it gives me no pleasure to record that. Unless a salary cap is part of an integrated, multifaceted, mutually reinforcing set of policies it will never be highly effective.

I can barely remember a time when one or another of the Premiership clubs were not generally felt by their fellow teams to be breaking or getting around the cap. It indicates that the salary cap has been honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Indeed, a pattern has been repeated again and again. The cycle begins with the setting of a new cap level, followed by a few seasons during which costs stabilise and revenues rise. After this period of relative stability, a few clubs feel they can spend more and most clubs feel they have no choice but to follow their example if they wish to remain competitive.

Mark Evans in 1997 when he was DoR of Saracens

In charge: Mark Evans watches a Saracens game in 1997, when he was the club’s director of rugby (Getty)

Soon after a breach is discovered (usually through a whistle-blower), a ‘deal’ involving an amnesty is done behind closed doors, which also includes the introduction of a higher cap level in order to ensure no club has to move players on. Then the whole cycle starts again.

The only difference this time is that it appears there was no appetite for an internal settlement – too close in time to the 2015 ‘deal’ perhaps? Patience seems to have worn a little thin; so soon after everyone agreed that this time it really would be different.

Competitors and probably many of the rugby public looked at a squad containing nine players in the World Cup final line-ups, plus various other international players, and thought: “That can’t be done within the spirit of the regulations we all agreed upon”, regardless of the undoubted excellence of the pathway system and culture at Allianz Park.

Witness the vehement reactions of many clubs when the news broke. There is a real sense of anger amongst many of them that it has all happened again, never mind whether the breaches were intentional or not.

But if all that comes out of all this is that one club cops it, then it is only a matter of time before it happens again. The real thing that needs fixing is the governance model. To expect a group of clubs to self-police, which is what has happened to date, is naïve in the extreme.

Nigel Wray, former Saracens chairman

Rocked: Nigel Wray stepped down as Saracens chairman soon after the scandal broke (Getty Images)

They are competitive organisations looking for competitive advantage; coupled with the fact that most club owners are entrepreneurial in nature and tend to be somewhat suspicious of regulations, even those looking to ensure competitive balance and uncertainty of outcome. This in-built resistance is exacerbated whenever a new owner who has not had to suffer the losses of the past two decades enters the league.

What the Premiership requires is an independent board or commission, with a much more powerful chief executive whose remit is the commercial success of the league as a whole and not the interests or otherwise of individual clubs and chairmen.

Only then will the club game in England get away from its slavish adherence to an inappropriate football-type model and adopt a structure which can actually grow the reach and value of the league whilst ensuring the cumulative losses of the club owners do not continue to mount. If such change could be facilitated, possibly by CVC, then some real good might come out of this rather predictable tale.

This column originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

Saracens fans

Shock to the system: Sarries fans will have to get used to watching second-tier rugby next season (Getty)

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