Followers of rugby union will have been shocked by the news that Saracens have been handed a 35-point deduction and hefty fine for a breach of salary cap rules.
The Premiership champions have pledged to appeal the decision, which is equivalent to the difference between a play-off place and a bottom half finish, based on 2018-19 totals.
If upheld, it will make another title close to impossible – Exeter Chiefs finished top of last year’s regular-season table and were only 30 clear of Harlequins, who missed out on the play-offs altogether.
We’re not used to seeing points deductions on this scale in rugby union, but we’ve encountered plenty of damaging penalties elsewhere in the sporting world. Here are a few of the more dramatic stories.
Middlesbrough, 1996-97 Premier League
In December 1996, as illness swept through the Boro squad, player-manager Bryan Robson was concerned about not being able to find 11 fit players.
“Don’t ask me what the team is going to be, because I haven’t got one,” Robson told Eric Paylor of the Evening Gazette ahead of a Premier League clash with Blackburn. Eventually, his team called the game off – they maintain they had the blessing of the FA to do so, and anticipated communication as to a rearranged date.
Instead, though, Boro were docked three points for failing to fulfil their fixture, and they couldn’t possibly have known at the time how significant those points would be.
In a tightly-congested lower half of the table, Boro won 10 of their 38 games, drawing 12 and losing 16. 42 points would have been enough for a 14th place finish, but 39 sent them down in 19th, with stars Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho leaving after relegation.
“If I’d have known there was any chance of a points deduction, I’d have fielded YTS lads and the laundry ladies,” Robson later told FourFourTwo. If only he’d known the gravity of the situation.
Juventus, 2006-07 Serie B
After the Calciopoli scandal, Juve were hit the hardest of all the Italian clubs implicated.
Not only were they stripped of their Serie A title from the previous season, but they found themselves demoted to the second tier, where they were initially slated to start the campaign on minus thirty points. The total was reduced to minus nine on appeal, and Juve will be grateful for that fact.
Of course, a points deduction isn’t quite as damaging if you have a squad capable of holding its own in the top tier, let alone the second. Gigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero were among the players who stayed, and they still won the Serie B title, albeit by six points instead of 15.
That same year, Fiorentina, Reggina, Milan and Lazio all began the Serie A season with deductions ranging from three to 15 points. Remarkably, all four stayed up and the latter two still made it into the top four.
Leeds United, 2006-07 Championship and 2007-08 League One
When Leeds went into administration in the 2006-07 season, accruing a 10-point deduction which rubber-stamped their relegation from the Championship, their fans must have thought they’d seen the worst of it. Turns out the misery had barely begun.
Leeds started their League One campaign 15 points behind everyone else after failing to comply with insolvency rules, with supporters trust chairman Rick Duniec telling The Guardian “Some fans are already looking at the statistics in recent seasons to see how many points we need, first to avoid relegation and then to make a play-off place”.
As it turned out, the tally they needed to make the play-offs was 91 points, or 76 with the deduction. But, Doncaster Rovers denied them promotion with a 1-0 win at Wembley.
The worst part, though? Without the deduction they’d have finished second, a full nine points clear in the race for automatic promotion.
Luton Town, Rotherham United Darlington and Bournemouth, 2008-09
Three games into the 2008-09 League Two season, Chester City were stuck on 0 points, and yet found themselves more than 10 points clear of the drop zone.
Darlington (10 points), Bournemouth (17), Rotherham (also 17) and Luton (a massive 30) all started the season with negative totals, with the Hatters suffering a comically large punishment after being found guilty of paying agents via a third party and having this added to penalties associated with failing to exit administration.
“Once again the faithful supporters are left high and dry and once again a policy of honesty is not recognised at all by the footballing authorities who claim they want to clean up the game,” said Luton director Stephen Browne, who maintained the new owners were being punished for the actions of their predecessors.
Unsurprisingly, the Hatters finished bottom after more than half of their end-of-season point total was wiped away, but the other three clubs all survived. Finishing below a team after beginning with a 17-point head-start isn’t a great look – a season to forget, then for the eight teams who started on zero and still finished behind Rotherham.
Chester were the worst off, though, also dropping below Bournemouth to drop out of the league. Still, it could be worse – if they’d had a deduction like Luton’s they’d have finished on single figures.