As desperate as both Saracens and Exeter are to move on from the salary cap saga that engulfed the former and enraged the latter, there will not be many fans inside Sandy Park on Saturday keen to let it lie.
While the stolid collection of Premiership points may publicly be pronounced by both sides as their priority as we enter the middle third of the season, this one matters more.
It is a fixture with a history of ire, provocation from board level to pitch level, and a rivalry that has cracked the England dressing room.
Exeter welcome Saracens in the Premiership on Saturday in a fixture with a history of ire
Exeter never had a monopoly on their anger towards Saracens and their book-bending accounting – as their director of rugby Rob Baxter pointed out with a chuckle this week.
‘I know we continually get brought up as the team but there were 10 other Premiership clubs who were pretty annoyed as well,’ he said.
‘We were all feeling similarly about it.’
Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter said they are not only ones with anger towards Saracens
But they were the side most visibly wronged by Saracens’ cheating, having lost three finals to Mark McCall’s side who now back in the top flight are on a level playing field with the rest for the first season in many.
Due to Sarries’ relegation, after their number-fiddling was exposed, Exeter have only played them twice in just under two years.
THE FINAL AGONY
Exeter lost three Premiership finals to Saracens while they were breaking the salary cap.
2016: Saracens 28 Exeter 20
2018: Saracens 27 Exeter 10
2019: Saracens 37 Exeter 34
Neither counted for meaningful points for Saracens, already in December 2019 and September 2020 destined for the drop with countless minus points enforced on them.
But that match on December 29, 2019 did spark.
That November, after the World Cup, Saracens had been served with their initial punishment – the £5.36m fine, the 35-point deduction – and while most clubs had their say Exeter went furthest.
When asked about it Baxter, while typically measured, was the first coach to outwardly label Sarries’ infringements as ‘cheating’ – a message he stuck to.
Chairman Tony Rowe was the most outspoken suit, asking for Saracens to be stripped of their titles, not so that they could be handed to Exeter but so their creative accounting was not rewarded.
So Sandy Park was charged for Saracens’ arrival that December. Exeter won 14-7, but the game exploded near the end with an all-in brawl which saw Chiefs scrum-half Nic White flipped over and prop Harry Williams lose his head, enter the fray from the bench and escalate things unnecessarily.
He was sent off as referee Wayne Barnes threatened Sarries No 8 Billy Vunipola too with a card for backchat.
Later it emerged that the England forward had been lauding his ill-gotten gains over Exeter – reported he said to White ‘Unlucky, you haven’t got a Premiership winner’s medal.’
Chiefs prop Harry Williams was shown a red card on the bench for his involvement in the brawl that escalated when the two sides met in December 2019
White never did win one before leaving during 2020’s lockdown. His deep dislike for the way Saracens denied Exeter, how they not only failed to appreciate their cheating, show much humility, but also now were actively lauding it over their rivals, was shared among many Chiefs.
So while time has passed, bitterness may linger. England coach Eddie Jones, in his new book, cites how the salary cap saga split his dressing room, with resentment building against the Sarries-heavy leadership group.
England boss Eddie Jones claims Saracens Salary breach scandal split his dressing room
‘It’s like anything in life, you can keep looking back on it and keep going “that wasn’t fair, that wasn’t fair”. It doesn’t do a lot of good now,’ said a measured Baxter this week.
‘Now, we’re all getting on with it. Saracens have done their time, and they are back, and we’re all moving on under new salary cap regulations. If you want to win the Premiership this year Saracens are going to be part of it, and you’ve got to be a better team than them.
‘But it’s like anything in sport, you use anything you can. If some players are still feeling that’s an issue, then that’s great and they should use that as motivation.’
Saracens are expecting a febrile full-house on Saturday at Sandy Park – but then again, while Exeter recently have been their fiercest rivals for titles, they are seen as just another club with a gripe against them.
‘We’re ready for it,’ back-row Jackson Wray told Sportsmail.
‘I’m assuming it’s going to be nice and hostile, but we’re looking forward to going down there, playing against a good team, testing ourselves.
‘There are a few bits coming our way, fans at games who haven’t been too nice, but all we can do is go out and do what we need to do on the pitch and it’ll take the edge off.
‘Maybe for them it matters, but for us it’s done, it’s been, gone, happened.
‘Rivals? Yeah. There’s probably quite a few rivals around for us!’
Saracens back-row Jackson Wray insists the visitors are prepared for the hostility they will face
Sarries boss McCall is never one for outward displays of emotion in front of the Press, but knows raw feeling will play a part for some today.
‘There’s always buttons to push no matter who you’re playing,’ he said.
‘We’ll try to arrive at 3pm at Sandy Park in a really good emotional state.
‘We’re going to face Exeter at their best, they’re probably going to have their strongest team of the season out, and will be at their most motivated. We’ll be motivated too but these lapses of concentration, these spells we’re having, won’t be good enough.’
Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall claims his side will arrive in a ‘good emotional state’
Both sides are playing this grudge match down publicly, then. For Exeter that might be wise – you won’t like Saracens when they’re angry.
Asked if they are galvanised by others’ ill-feeling towards them, Wray said: ‘I’d say so. It does bring us closer – adversity does make you stronger. That’s the way we like to be.
‘Everything that went on that year was tough, the year in the Championship was difficult and frustrating, but being back we’re as confident as we ever were.
‘It feels we’re ready to kick on to the next level.
‘This isn’t personal for us, we just want to win.’