For the first time a fuller picture is emerging of the anguish, the collective uncertainty and the other tangled emotions felt by those at the centre of the Saracens salary cap scandal.
Representing the serial trophy winners was a dream scenario until recently but, as two of their senior players have confirmed, the past three months have not been easy.
The British & Irish Lions hooker Jamie George has described the week before last month’s European pool game against Racing 92 as “probably the worst week of some people’s lives” while Maro Itoje says it came as a shock when he was informed that financial arrangements between himself and the club had fallen foul of the regulations. Both say they intend to stay at Saracens next season but do not yet know to what extent relegation to the Championship will affect their careers.
As things stand both George and Itoje, currently on England duty, are committed to remaining but are unsure how many of their teammates will be able to do likewise. “We haven’t got all the answers yet,” George said. “It’s a difficult one. We are 80 or 90% of the way to knowing what’s going on but there’s still a few bits to work out. I won’t lie to you, there is a lot going on. We are obviously feeling for the boys at the club who are having to deal with it day in, day out. Coming away into [England’s] camp was almost a relief … we’ve something else to focus on.”
Itoje also revealed it “felt like an invasion of privacy” when the full independent report detailing his image rights arrangements with the club was leaked, making public a significant amount of joint investment detail. “It wasn’t ideal, to be honest. It felt like an invasion of privacy but some things are out of your control.
“When I entered into [the agreements] they were all – to my knowledge, based on anything I got told – above board. There wasn’t even the slightest thought of it being not allowed by the salary cap manager. Obviously the situation is very different now. It is very clear that whatever you do, you have to get it checked.”
Itoje, though, is not so keen for players’ salaries to become a routine matter of public record in future – “I wouldn’t want anybody or everybody knowing exactly what I’m earning … I don’t think there’s a genuine need for that” – and would clearly prefer the furore to go away. “No one at the club wanted this to happen and no one at the club envisaged this would happen. So I don’t want to sit here and say: ‘It was this person’s fault or that person’s fault.’ I’m not here to point fingers.”
George was more forthcoming on the emotions he has experienced since Saracens’ original fine and points deduction were announced in early November. “It’s difficult to put one word on it. [At first] you’re angry or upset but find a way to find the positives. Then something else happens and you go through it again. We’ll be challenged this season more than we’ve ever been and probably again next season. We’ve got to make sure that we fight to keep the club afloat really.
“I guess we as players feel a responsibility to pay back what the club have given us. They have shown a huge amount of loyalty to me, as well as remorse in terms of what they have done. That is appreciated. I don’t feel let down. The opportunities that Nigel Wray has given to me as a person from the age of 17 … he has invested so much time and love in me so I will be for ever grateful for that.”
Quite how easy the club’s senior players will find it to juggle Championship rugby with retaining their England starting places under Eddie Jones while also pushing their Lions claims remains to be seen.
George, now 29, is trying to look on the bright side – “It might be an opportunity to rest a little bit more which you don’t really get at this stage of your career” – but not everyone’s circumstances are the same.
“The conversations are ongoing with Eddie and [Saracens’ director of rugby] Mark McCall,” George said. “I think it will be different for each individual but I want to stay at the club and be part of the transition going forward. I didn’t get any offers from France; maybe they aren’t interested. But I haven’t been looking.
“For me the pinnacle of my career is playing for England and further, so for that to be the case I need to be in the country. There is talk of playing pretty competitive games in South Africa and talk of actually playing against South Africa. Games like that will be essential.”
England, meanwhile, are still hopeful that Manu Tuilagi may be fit to feature against Ireland on Sunday week having been injured in the first half against France and sat out the Scotland game with a sore groin. Henry Slade is also making progress following ankle trouble but Anthony Watson’s calf injury is set to sideline him for at least another couple of weeks.