Premiership and European rugby champions Saracens have been docked 35 points for breaching Premiership Rugby’s salary cap.
The English club must also pay a £5.4m fine after a probe into investment partnerships between its chairman, renowned City bigwig Nigel Wray, and a number of senior players.
A nine-month investigation by Premiership Rugby found that Saracens’ star players, including Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers, had agreed investment or property partnerships with Wray.
Saracens have been handed the maximum possible punishment after an independent panel, to which salary cap disputes are referred, concluded that the club failed to disclose payments to players in each of the seasons 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
It means Saracens, who had nine points from three games so far this season, will fall to the bottom of the table with -26 points and could be embroiled in a relegation scrap.
Saracens to appeal
The club have already announced their intention to appeal the decision, saying they are “shocked and disappointed by the heavy-handed sanctions”.
A spokesperson for Saracens said: “The club steadfastly maintains that player co-investments do not constitute salary under the regulations. This view is supported by independent legal and professional experts.
“Furthermore, it is the Club’s belief that the Panel’s narrow interpretation of the regulations is detrimental to player welfare across the league and is damaging the development of elite level rugby in the UK.”
The domestic salary cap of £7m plus two marquee players excluded from the cap is meant to improve competition between rugby clubs and has been in place since 1999.
A Premiership Rugby spokesperson said: “The Salary Cap is an important mechanism to ensure a level playing field for Premiership Clubs and maintain a competitive, growing and financially sustainable league.
“Today’s decision by the Independent Panel upholds both the principle of the Salary Cap and the charges brought following an extensive investigation by Premiership Rugby.”
Wray has previously addressed his investment partnerships with players, saying back in March: “As a club, we want and actively encourage all of our players to consider their futures beyond playing the sport we all love.
“If you think of the Saracens culture and how we look after our people as a jigsaw puzzle then co-investments with players and staff are just one piece of the puzzle.”
Wray made his name as the founder of Franchise brands before joining Saracens as club chairman in 2012.
A serial investor, 71-year-old Wray has said he has holdings in around 30 companies, including real estate investor Secure Income REIT and Prestbury Investments. He also held a stake in Domino’s Pizza for 17 years.