Saracens have put rugby union “in a very dangerous place” after they were found to breach salary cap rules, says ex-England captain Chris Robshaw.
The Premiership champions face a 35-point deduction and a £5.36m fine after an inquiry into business dealings between owner Nigel Wray and players.
Robshaw said the European champions were “cheating to a certain extent”.
“It’s not great, the game we love is in the world eye and the pinnacle of English rugby is illegal,” he said.
Clubs cannot spend more than £7m on player salaries, although they are allowed two whose wages do not count towards the cap. Teams can also receive extra money for fielding home-grown players or to pay for injury cover.
It is claimed Premiership and European champions Saracens avoided the regulations by investing in companies co-owned by Wray and some of their star players, including England captain Owen Farrell and forwards Mako and Billy Vunipola.
Harlequins captain Robshaw said the game has “some damage control to do” as a result of the investigation.
“It will not be easy for our sport to move forward,” the 33-year-old added.
“We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, we look down on this and that and say how it is but we are like everyone else.”
The fine and points penalty, which Saracens are appealing, comes 10 years after another hugely controversial moment for the English game when Robshaw’s club, Quins, were embroiled in the Bloodgate scandal.
“As a sport, we have got to take the damage that comes with that now and I’m sure it will be like that for a while,” Robshaw said.
Meanwhile, Leicester boss Geordan Murphy says he would now welcome a league-wide review of club accounts.
Asked if he feels there should be an investigation into all Premiership finances, Murphy said: “Yes, I think so.
“What we have seen at Saracens is the result of investigations that have gone on for a little while, but we are all expected to adhere to the same rules.”
The Tigers head coach told BBC East Midlands Today that he was “a little shocked” by the severity of the punishment from Premiership Rugby, but said he could not comment further without “the full facts available”.
He added that Tigers, a club put up for sale to try and ensure they remain a force in the Premiership, would be open to greater financial scrutiny.
“I wouldn’t want to talk about anyone else’s books, but I’m really confident that our books are squeaky clean,” he said.
“Every year we fill out forms and declare our information, so they have been looking into different teams and every team over the course of the last few years.”
Exeter boss Rob Baxter says Saracens will have won their last two titles unfairly if their appeal against breaching salary cap rules fails.
Baxter’s side lost the 2018 and 2019 Premiership finals to the London club.
“If this is upheld, it’s pretty obvious those titles have been won unfairly,” Exeter’s director of rugby said at this season’s Champions Cup launch in Cardiff, which Sarries avoided attending.
“If you’re asking me would I like to walk into Sandy Park and see three Premiership trophies there, I would love to.
“In reality do I see that happening? No. There are too many other factors that come into play.
“I believe the way we played in the final last year would have beaten any other team in the Premiership.”
The Chiefs were beaten 37-34 in a thrilling final in June as tries by Wales star Liam Williams, Scotland’s Sean Maitland and England’s Jamie George – who have all toured with the British and Irish lions – helped Saracens peg back a 27-16 deficit with 20 minutes to go.
But Baxter says that to suggest that his side would have won the title but for Saracens’ alleged extra financial muscle is not necessarily the case.
“The whole truth is if Saracens had been operating with a different group of players last season they may not have got to the final, and if a different team had been there they might have outperformed us on the day,” he continued.
“It would be ridiculous for me to say they were givens. How many results could have been different in the course of a season and the top four could have been created differently.
“Every one of the games, semi-finals and finals would have been different. To sit here and say ‘we should have been given the title’ is a little bit like a shortcut when the season is what you do as whole.”
And Baxter believes it is right that investments by club officials in firms that are owned or part-owned by players should count towards the cap.
“We’re supposed to be working within the salary cap to create a level of fairness and competition. That’s what we have signed up to and agreed to,” he added.
“If the first response is to say the payments, investments and inducements are outside the cap but are OK because the wording of the cap doesn’t catch them, the concern is they will move on by finding another way of doing it outside the wording of the salary cap.
“You shouldn’t be paying outside the salary cap and to dress it up in player welfare and developing the game sticks in the craw.
“There can’t be many people within rugby circles who don’t think this is just the elephant in the room finally coming out into the open, instead of being in the corner of the room.”