Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, has welcomed Premiership Rugby’s review of the salary cap in the wake of Saracens’ unprecedented punishment, urging the league’s hierarchy to “decide what they want from the competition”.
Exeter were left furious last month when Saracens were found guilty of repeatedly breaching the cap, handed a £5.36m fine and docked 35 points. Exeter lost the 2018 and 2019 Premiership finals to Saracens and Baxter has said those titles were won “unfairly”. The Exeter chairman, Tony Rowe, has been similarly incensed, threatening legal action and calling for Saracens to be relegated. “I don’t think the penalty is severe enough,” he said last month. “In America, if you’re in breach of the salary cap, you get thrown out completely.”
In the week before Christmas PRL revealed it would be conducting an independent review, led by Lord Myners, a former City minister, which could lead to harsh sanctions from next season. PRL also confirmed Saracens would face “additional measures” to ensure they are not in breach this season.
For Exeter, however, the bitter taste remains. Baxter believes there is an argument for reducing the salary cap below £7m because the Chiefs are the only Premiership side to make a profit. Alternatively, doing away with the cap altogether would lead to the emergence of a handful of what Baxter described as “superclubs”, with the rest left behind.
Either way, Baxter says Premiership Rugby must map out its future path, insisting that Saracens’ breaching of the salary cap for the past three seasons demonstrates that the league has not been governed effectively.
“I don’t think there’s a perfect answer right now,” says Baxter. “That’s why at some stage you have to decide what you want from the competition and then, if you agree to it, you have to work to agree to it. If you don’t agree to it, you shouldn’t be part of it. That’s not a nasty thing, it’s perfectly rational: you either want to be part of a competition or you don’t. That’s probably what Premiership Rugby needs to have as its founding thing.”
Against that backdrop Exeter host Saracens on Sunday for the first meeting between the sides this season in a match that will be rich in added spice. Only recently Baxter described Saracens’ results this season as “just not real” but, while Exeter were top of the Premiership before the weekend’s fixtures, Mark McCall’s side would be above the Chiefs without their points deduction.
Neither side has held anything back in terms of selection – Exeter made nine changes for last week’s victory over Leicester but welcome back a host of rested players, including Alec Hepburn and Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Dennis, Dave Ewers, Sam and Joe Simmonds, Nic White and Jack Nowell. Henry Slade misses out after suffering an ankle injury at Welford Road that may rule him out of the start of England’s Six Nations campaign.
Saracens, meanwhile, have selected seven of England’s World Cup finalists in their XV, with another two on the bench. Max Malins continues at fullback after his eyecatching performance against Bristol last time out with Elliot Daly sticking on the wing.
“Everyone knows they have a very talented side, a very talented squad,” adds Baxter. “They’ve probably got a different motivation right here, right now than they’ve had in other years. Every game challenges you in a different way and this scenario is a different challenge. Saracens coming here, desperate to collect points.
“We’ve been pretty straightforward in our views on the salary cap situation. That’s not going to be a de-motivator. I’m aware of that. Also, we’ve been in a situation where they’ve knocked us off in a couple of finals and we’d like to put that right, so it should be a fantastic game. It could be an absolute cracker.
“If there’s anything that particularly needles you or aggravates you or motivates you – Saracens will use them all in their personal motivation – there’s nothing wrong with our lads using it in their personal motivation as well.”
The most recent meeting between the sides was last season’s Premiership final when Exeter had one hand on the trophy, having taken a 27-16 lead, only for Saracens to hit back and claim a 37-34 victory. The Exeter prop, Harry Williams, is expecting a similarly titanic encounter. “Regardless of what gets said, all that matters is what happens on the pitch,” he says. “It will be physical no matter what happens. No words need to be said. They’ve won a lot of tournaments, they’re well experienced, they have a lot of international players but we’re really looking forward to it.”