If Saturday’s game between Saracens and Leinster in Dublin showed us anything, it is that, given everything that has happened to the Londoners over the past 12 months, the legacy they can hold on to is in Europe, not their domestic one.
Having been found guilty of breaking the salary cap over multiple seasons, you can understand the visible anger that has been on show from other Gallagher Premiership clubs. They broke the rules of the domestic competition in which they played and as such gave themselves an unfair advantage over their competitors. Whether or not the final punishment meted out was overkill or on the money remains open for debate, but the decision to punish the club was entirely justified.
If it had not been for those infractions, would Exeter Chiefs have more than a sole Premiership title to their name? Or could the high-octane Bath and Wasps sides of the period have ended their respective trophy droughts?
Even putting aside their claims, an example also had to be set. With another club having previously broken the cap and one unnamed figure at another Premiership club boasting that they had “found a way around the cap before and will do so again”, not to mention another club reportedly being currently investigated, a precedent had to be set that this is not acceptable.
It is impossible to say that those Premiership titles won by Saracens are not at least somewhat tarnished. The lauding of the coaching set-up has suddenly gone quiet, the gusto with which the all-conquering squad was championed has diminished and, in an already challenging time for the sport in the country, the posterboys of English rugby have turned from heroes to villains faster than a Shakespearian tragedy.
Where their legacy lies more or less undiminished, however, is in their European campaigns.
Having been written off by many in the face of the all-conquering Leinster side and having lost a plethora of their stars since the start of the season, Saracens, unrelentingly, marched on to another European semi-final on Saturday. Despite the trials they have faced this season, most of which were self-inflicted, in fairness, who now would bet against them going all the way again this year?
The reigning European champions have won three of the last four tournaments and have been ever-present in the knockout rounds since the 2011/12 season. Their arrival as the pre-eminent force in Europe ended Toulon’s three-year domination of the tournament, as well postponing Leinster’s regaining of the title and stymying, on multiple occasions, the rampant forces of Clermont and Racing 92.
Whilst domestically people call foul play and correctly so, there is no salary cap to bind teams in Europe’s premier club competition. Here Saracens were pitched against the uncapped provinces of Leinster and Munster, and the free-spending behemoths of French rugby. They took on those challenges and they succeeded.
Again, rival English clubs can fairly gripe that Saracens’ exploitation of the salary cap allowed them to secure a more favourable seeding going into European competition, though truthfully, few, if any clubs over that period will truly have thought that Saracens’ top seeding was the pivotal factor that cost them a shot at lifting European silverware.
Exeter have been the consistent number two side in England over the past five or so years and have enjoyed favourable European seeding as a result, yet their European trophy cabinet is bare. Saracens aside, not since Northampton Saints in 2011 has an English club looked like lifting the trophy, whilst you have to go all the way back to the early-to-mid 2000’s for any actual English silverware, back when Leicester Tigers and London Wasps were the dominant forces in Europe.
Would a Wasps, a Bath or a Harlequins have gone on to Champions Cup success in recent years if their second, third or fourth seed had been traded in for a higher starting spot? You cannot definitively say no, though it would take the most optimistic of fan to suggest they were in a place to compete, consistently over the group stage and three rounds of knockout rugby, with the leading French and Irish sides of the time.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
And so, we come back to Saracens, that discarded and unloved black sheep of the English rugby family. A club dropped to the second tier of English rugby for a year of penance.
Well, at least a year. (How about them Ealing Trailfinders?)
Regardless, the praise of the players, the coaching staff, the culture and everything else that was eulogised during their era of dominance, still holds true in their European successes, if not their Premiership ones.
Mark McCall still masterminded multiple wins over Leinster, Munster and an array of French sides. Alex Sanderson, who was, until recently, linked with every vacant Director of Rugby or Head Coach job under the sun, still refined and sharpened one of the most brutal packs we have seen in the professional era. Dan Vickers, Joe Shaw, Kevin Sorrell and Ian Peel all still played their roles in taking a talented group of players and moulding them into perhaps the most ruthlessly efficient side in European rugby history.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
Speaking of those talented players, Saracens have contributed the core of the England team for a number of years now, with the majority of them, such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Jamie George, having been developed at the club’s academy. They are still a vital part of Eddie Jones’ plans as he builds towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup and the club’s role in their development has not vanished, no matter the heinousness of the front office infractions.
Players have left, the books have been balanced and even amid rumours of reduced financial input, Saracens’ ‘Wolfpack’ culture still permeates the club. Snorted at and treated with derision on social media, you only have to take to those same venom-laced sites to see what the club means to some of its former players.
Ben Earl was quick to talk about Saracens in his post-match interview after his starring role in Bristol Bears’ thumping of the Dragons, before then taking to Twitter to wish Saracens luck for their game against Leinster. Ok, he is only on loan away from the club for a year and it is good to stay in your employer’s good graces, but surely those who have left on a more permanent basis would not be too interested? Not so if Ben Spencer is anything to go by, with the Bath scrum-half eager to wish the best on his former club and teammates in the build-up to the game.
— Ben (@BenEarlba) September 19, 2020
Playing at any club will bond you with your teammates. Some are stronger than others, to the point where it creates a brotherhood, something that was always attributed to those at Saracens, and if you think that is gone, you are fooling yourself. It still exists and worse now, they have chips on their shoulders.
The truth is, they do not and they never have played to the level they did for the money. Sure, they are professional rugby players and rugby is the method through which they pay the mortgage and support their families, but when they take to the pitch, they are not thinking of a cheque signed by Nigel Wray.
They played that way because of the work the coaching staff put in at their St Albans training ground. And because a bloodied Brad Barritt was tackling his way to another metal plate in his cheek, or for a backslap from a cheering Itoje, or to avoid a bollocking from Farrell. Maybe it was for one of the fairly legendary socials that would be a reward for a particularly tough win or run of attritional games.
Motivation – real, bodies on the line motivation – does not come from money, it comes from the culture that is created within an environment. One of accountability and social reward.
Culture cannot keep players when you have a salary cap to get under, however.
A new era is dawning for Saracens, one in which they may not have the financial support of the past and one in which respect, not just success, will have to be re-earned with blood, sweat and tears. Whether they look back and seek to emulate the past or look forward and plan to create something completely new remains to be seen, but for all the sniping that heads in their direction, their European achievements are still something to be celebrated and remembered.
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