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McCall will feel betrayed as feats may be tarnished

Hammer blow: Mark McCall
Hammer blow: Mark McCall
David Kelly

By David Kelly

While the rest of the rugby world were basking in the business of the Six Nations last March, Bangor man Mark McCall was once more quizzed on the business of Saracens and how fairly they operated their affairs.

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"I'm pretty relaxed about it all," said the former Ulster and Ireland centre on a Tuesday in between weekends of, predictably, winning, despite the fact that most of their first-team squad were on international duty.

"It's just been another normal week of training."

Eight months later, what seemed like "just another normal" week for Saracens has been tumbled upside down by the completion of an investigation into the club's breaching of salary cap regulations.

Yesterday, McCall and his squad were met by stern-faced club officials. They were informed that, instead of occupying their usual position towards the top of the English Premiership, a 35-point deduction placed them in relegation territory.

Suddenly, now minus 26 points and with an incalculable loss to their reputation and legacy, things don't seem so normal.

Saracens have already announced they will appeal the remarkable verdict - including a fine in excess of £5.3m - but have been told they can only do so if they believe there has been a flawed legal process, an irrational verdict or procedural unfairness.

The authorities must have been sure before signing off on this one; for this was no ordinary judgment, no mere slap on the wrist but an explosive pronouncement upon flawed morality.

The extent of their financial doping - a phrase former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger coined - has the potential to taint every single one of their achievements in recent years.

And, in doing so, it will also unfairly undermine the remarkable coaching efforts of McCall, whose studious dedication to his task has won him global admirers yet now appears to have been constructed upon a carefully crafted fix.

Rivals who once admired them, from domestic fallen giants like fellow Irishman Geordan Murphy's relatively impoverished Leicester, to Irish provinces like Munster, whose financial difficulties have forced them to compete with one hand tied behind their back, will cry foul at this stunning news.

Not since Tom Williams bit down on a blood capsule a decade ago has the often sanctimonious sport of rugby union bore witness to such a dedicated ruse of trickery and deceit.

Three days after a World Cup final success that gladdened the heart with its tale of how the sport can transform the lives of those otherwise condemned to a life of poverty, this story of indecent financial greed and lust strikes at the heart of the decency and values sport should uphold.

Yesterday's judgment may seem to have delivered a definitive verdict but, in truth, it raises many more questions.

Does the investigation only refer to last season, when Saracens claimed yet another league and European double, defying a Leinster side seeking back-to-back European titles en route?

Should Leinster now be awarded that title? And what about the Munster and Ulster sides in previous years who also suffered knock-out defeats at their hands?

After all, in other sports, like athletics, competitors have been stripped of titles while soccer dished out swingeing punishments on Juventus to fit a different, yet still egregious crime.

European Cup organisers have already tried to distance their competition from the circumstances of Saracens' actions but anyone with a scintilla of intelligence should treat this stance with the contempt it deserves.

Make no mistake, the impact of this will send a shuddering earthquake throughout the sport, dependent upon appeal, and the chief initial impact could be to see the dismantling of world rugby's most powerful squad.

Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers will not want to be plying their trade in the second tier, and without European rugby.

Saracens will launch a powerful legal defence and even if anecdotal stories about players' wives being employed and players arriving via shelf companies in South Africa might offend a moral code, the club will argue they do not betray a legal one.

They claim that controversial player co-investments involving Farrell and the Vunipolas aren't part of the cap, and that they are supported by independent legal and professional opinions.

They also claim that there is precedent involved and they seem intent on dragging competition law into the argument too.

If there is any sympathy, perhaps it should be reserved for the ordinary fans of the club. So too for McCall, a decent man and a clearly capable coach, but one hoodwinked by eminences he felt he could trust but now discovers, like the rest of us, he couldn't.

For that is the greatest crime of all, perhaps. That a sport's trust could be so tarnished, and the faith of those who participate within it tainted beyond belief.

Hopefully, not for a prolonged period.

That is now dependent on what happens in the legal offices far from sporting fields where, in all our innocence, many of us still pine for the simplicity of knowing that it is on such green fields that true sporting achievement is achieved.

Belfast Telegraph


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