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'It was only because we were so successful that clubs came after us'

By Ian Cameron
(L-R) Richard Barrington, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis and Billy Vunipola of Saracens celebrate with the trophy after the Aviva Premiership final match between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham Stadium on May 28, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

Saracens No.8 Billy Vunipola has described the salary cap scandal that engulfed the club three years ago as a ‘witchhunt’ and one motivated by envy of the London side’s success.

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In early 2020 Saracens were informed they would be relegated from the Gallagher Premiership at the end of the season following a series of breaches of the salary cap.

The club had already been deducted 35 points by the Premiership Rugby Ltd and fined £5.3 million in November of 2019, having broken the cap for the past three seasons.

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Looking back on the scandal three years on and Vunipola still feels aggrieved with how the investigation and subsequent relegation to the RFU Championship played out.

“Obviously, it was a witch hunt,” Vunipola told The Big Jim Show. “It felt to me like it was only because we were so successful that clubs came after us… owners, whatever you want to call it.

“I was hurt by it. The first day they gave us 35 points (deduction), I was unbelievably excited by it. I was like oh my gosh, we are going to do this lads, which is why I was so hurt by it when they’ve turned around and said, ‘we’ve doubled your points deduction’.

“I remember to myself thinking I’m never going to leave. I think I talked to you on RugbyPass? I remember thinking I’m going to stay here, this is my club, this my team. Which it is. It will always be my team.

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“But now I’m starting to see the other side of it, the business side of it.

“With Covid, everyone had to sign a deal. Not everyone knows this but the Covid-deal was on a Thursday I think, a random Thursday, and you had to sign it by Monday. So you have a weekend to think about it, whether you’re willing to take a massive pay cut and whether you’re willing to sign a paycut for three or four years, not knowing what the salary cap is going to do, not knowing what money might or might not be there.

“So it was a big decision for a lot of people which is why you saw a lot of movement last year. It was the last year of people leaving [Saracens]. Now you’ve got the last year of people like [Luke] Cowan-Dickie and [Sam] Simmonds now leaving.

“And people say they [players] shouldn’t play for money. We’ve just talked about injuries right. How many people in office jobs have ever broken their arm and how many people have had to come back from that within a certain time period to play a big pressure game? It’s different, I get it but some people don’t understand the full facts behind the salary cap.”

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Vunipola also says that critics ignore the culture and sense of brotherhood that was built at Saracens, which he says was made and not bought.

“Look at Manchester United. I don’t really watch a lot of football but in the last three years they’ve spent the most in the transfer window and they are still rubbish.”

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Host and former Saracens teammate Jim Hamilton likened the scenario to Gallagher Premiership rivals Bristol Bears, who are owned by billionaire Steve Lansdown, but are currently bottom of the league table.

“They [Bristol] have the richest owner in the whole Premiership, they have the nicest training facilities, the nicest everything, but it doesn’t buy what we got at Sarries,” said Vunipola.  “It’ll never buy what we have at Sarries.”

You can listen to The Big Jim Show podcast in full here. 

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