There is nothing like social media to polarise debate and bring out extreme arguments without nuance. The salary cap scandal at Saracens is no different.
At one end of the spectrum, you have those who are extremely critical of the club and cite their spending on big-name signings as the reason for their success. At the other you have those who would defend the club, insisting they were simply re-signing the talents they had developed from their own pathway.
As ever, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle and the two arguments aren’t necessarily exclusive.
Back in August, RugbyPass looked at the percentage of Gallagher Premiership squads that were homegrown. With an impressive 57.9 per cent of their professional squad having come through the club’s junior academy, Saracens were the number one ranked side in the competition. In addition to that, their total of 48 academy graduates in the entire competition was second only to Leicester Tigers’ mark of 50.
This is not to excuse Saracens’ actions in relation to the salary cap, as ensuring competitiveness across the board is one of the main aims of a cap. It is a dilemma confronted by most successful teams in a salary-capped league – is this player so invaluable that we must retain him or is he not as vital and therefore can be released?
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Saracens didn’t engage with this puzzle as frequently as they should have, but their approach does add credence to the argument that the club were merely extending deals of the players they had developed and that the productivity of their academy and player pathway shouldn’t be a cause for punishment.
That said, were it not for extravagant senior recruitment the homegrown talent could have been retained without breaking the cap. If you look at Saracens’ intake of senior players during the three seasons they were found guilty of breaking the cap, there is no shortage of recruited talent.
In that first season, Vincent Koch and Schalk Burger arrived from South Africa, Scotland international Sean Maitland made the move south and Alex Lozowski upped sticks from Wasps. The following year Liam Williams, Christopher Tolofua and Will Skelton all arrived before a much quieter summer in 2018.
Finally, Elliot Daly and former academy product Jack Singleton both signed with the club in 2019. Of course, there were significant outgoings which mitigate that list, although seemingly not so significant as to have created the cap room for the new arrivals and the improved terms that the club’s own homegrown contingent had earned.
Just as the two arguments around the club’s breaches of the cap aren’t exclusive of one another, neither is the influence that the senior recruitment has had on the club’s productivity at the academy level.
Saracens are among the very best in the world at producing talented young players and integrating them into senior rugby. Integrating them into a star-studded senior side that is winning and can regularly be rotated with little drop in quality or results is far more preferable to throwing them in at the deep end in a team that is struggling.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 6, 2020
If that logic holds weight, then it arguably diminishes the success their academy has had over the last four years, as those prospects have been put into a positive situation that other clubs have not been able to legally replicate.
With interim CEO Edward Griffiths admitting that players will need to be released and/or accept reduced financial terms if the club are to be within guidelines for this season, there is an intriguing period on the horizon as to whether or not the club can maintain their recent standards in their academy.
The club’s academy isn’t just productive in terms of quantity, it also pumps out quality players, many of whom, such as Ben Earl or Nick Isiekwe, are involved with England almost as soon as they are involved with the Saracens first team.
With the squad set to be reduced in size and/or players of a lower quality targeted in the future, can the club keep up this production line of homegrown talent?
If, as a rugby fan, you can draw a line under Saracens’ salary cap breaches and accept that the 35-point deduction and £5.4million fine was sufficient, then this is a particularly interesting time in the club’s history for all neutral observers.
They have a long way to go if they are to earn back the trust they have lost, but if Saracens can maintain that pipeline of talent to the England team, rival fans will – slowly but surely – begin to forget, if not forgive.
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