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Men's Rugby Union Swing low sweet cheaters

RUGBY has always presented itself as one of the more mature and clean sports, with its origins in upper-class private schools and a posh-boy image. 

But all that has changed since recent revelations exposing dirty dealing at the highest level. 

The massive £5 million fine and 35-point deduction imposed on Saracens, one of the most glamorous English Rugby teams, for breaching salary-cap regulations over three years has shone the spotlight on a murky scandal. 

Other teams are also under investigation by the sport’s ruling body, World Rugby Union (WRU).

Saracens’ punishment followed investigation into business partnerships between the club’s chairman, Nigel Wray, and some of its players. 

Saracens were also fined £50,000 for failing to attend the launch of the 2019-20 European Champions Cup. Director of rugby Mark McCall and captain Brad Barritt did not appear in Cardiff on November 6 – the day after Saracens’ punishment was revealed.

The aim of the salary cap is to maintain a “level playing field” among clubs, leading to more exciting and unpredictable contests that entice more fans, in contrast to Premier League football where money buys success at the expense of poorer clubs. 

At the heart of the Saracens dispute is a series of property investment companies set up by Mr Wray and his associates, alongside key Saracens players, including Owen Farrell, the England captain, Richard Wigglesworth and Maro Itoje. 

One example is Vunprop Limited, a company incorporated in January 2017 with Mr Wray as the only shareholder, according to Companies House records. 

A month later, brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola, Saracens and England players, were appointed directors and joint shareholders. In accounts for the year to March 31, 2018, Vunprop had assets worth more than £1.5m.

Mr Wray, who first invested in Saracens in 1995, took full control of the club last year, when he acquired a 50 per cent stake from South African group Remgro. 

An early investor in Domino’s Pizza, from which he made £28m from selling a 3 per cent stake in 2013, he is now worth £315m, according to the Sunday Times rich list, from property and other investments. 

Tony Rowe, chairman and chief executive of Exeter Chiefs, which has lost to Saracens in the Premiership Rugby final in the past two seasons, has called for the champions to be thrown out of English rugby’s top division.

Chris Robshaw, a former England captain and Harlequins player, said: “It is cheating. As a sport, we tend to think our grass is greener than football or athletics, but now we are as muddy as the rest of them.

“If there are charges against other clubs in the pipeline, we have no way of knowing.”

The salary-cap system is regulated by Premiership Rugby — a company owned by the league’s 13 shareholder clubs — without oversight from the sport’s governing body in England, the Rugby Football Union. The regulations have confidentiality and secrecy built in.

In a further damaging revelation, Wales’s World Cup assistant coach Rob Howley was sent home from the recent tournament in Japan for suspected betting infringements. 

The former Wales captain and scrum-half left Wales’s training camp to assist with an investigation into a possible breach of World Rugby’s regulation six, which covers anti-corruption and betting. 

Players at all levels, as well as agents, match officials, disciplinary personnel, coaching and backroom staff, owners and directors involved at the highest level are banned from betting on any rugby match.

Ten years ago, what was then described as the biggest scandal in Rugby Union took place. An investigation by the European Rugby Cup and the Rugby Football Union revealed that blood injuries had been faked by Harlequins to enable tactical substitutions on four occasions. 

These findings resulted in a 12-month ban for Tom Williams (reduced to four months on appeal), a three-year ban for former director of rugby Dean Richards and a two-year ban for physiotherapist Steph Brennan, as well as a £260,000 fine for the club. 

Club chairman Charles Jillings subsequently tendered his resignation, while club doctor Wendy Chapman was suspended by the General Medical Council for a year before a disciplinary panel decided not to strike her off for cutting Williams’s lip to hide his use of the blood capsule. 

Harlequins escaped being thrown out of the Heineken Cup following the 2009 scandal when the European Rugby Cup board  approved of the penalties already handed out. 

Doping in cycling and athletics at elite and Olympic levels have also hit the headlines in recent years. The whole Russian track-and-field team was banned from the 2016 Olympic Games, following allegations of a state-sponsored doping programme. 

Over 30 per cent of athletes participating in 2011 World Championships admitted having used banned substances during their careers. 

According to a study commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, 44 per cent had used them – although only 0.5 per cent of those tested gave positive results.

At the heart of these attempts at cheating is money, sponsorship and greed, fostered by a capitalist system which has no interest in fairness, merit or integrity. 

Most sports fans would no doubt agree that rigging sport is no different from rigging financial markets to increase profits, the pity is that young people with sporting ambition and earnest intentions will inevitably be tainted by this culture.

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