Saracens’ victory over rivals Harlequins, on Saturday, kept alive the prospect of a domestic and European double for a club with off-field ambitions to match.
Coming from behind, to record a 31-17 win over ‘Quins, Saracens ensured progress to domestic rugby’s centre-piece Aviva Premiership Final, in a season where the Men in Black already have this weekend’s Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff to look forward to. Coming just 12 months after they exited both competitions at the semi-finals stage, the club has learnt from last year’s experience. A win over defending champions and bookmakers’ favourites, Toulon on Saturday, would crown Saracens as European champions for the first time in their history.
Saracens were one of the first English rugby sides to embrace professionalism in the mid-1990s, bringing stellar international names including Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar to the club. They remain well-backed financially by long-term benefactor Nigel Wray and a South African consortium; however, their budget is dwarfed by teams from France such as; Heineken Cup Semi-Final opponents Clermont Auvergne and Toulon, who have been able to attract superstar players such as England legend, Jonny Wilkinson.
Sarries’ story is one of hard work, preparation and ability. Admired for meticulous preparation and concentration on sports science, Saracens have added strength and pace to their game, which previously relied heavily on the boot of England’s Owen Farrell. Coach Mark McCall encouraged his players to look carefully at their own game and make improvements. Saracens are now stronger in the tackle and their defence is the basis for a far more expansive style of rugby. In Jacques Burger, Schalk Brits and Brad Barritt, Saracens have a strong, physical line up capable of rattling opponents. Perhaps the most dramatic improvement in form has come from England wing Chris Ashton, who looks confident and has been scoring tries for fun in Europe this season.
Maybe the most recognisable man at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium will be England’s 2003 World Cup winning hero, Jonny Wilkinson who will be looking to sign-off on a high after announcing his retirement. In last year’s semi-final, he out-kicked Owen Farrell, and went on to kick a further 11 points in the final. Their fly-half encounter is expected to be key to Saturday’s result.
Off the field, the club’s philosophy is based on building an interest in rugby through innovation and inclusion. Saracens are a club building their support base through links to communities and grassroots clubs in North London and across Hertfordshire. Interest in rugby amongst youngsters (and families), who may previously have played and supported football, is growing. Tickets for European and domestic games at Wembley Stadium have been reasonably priced, in comparison to games at neighbouring football clubs, leading to world-record crowds and a platform of support they hope will continue for many years to come.
Those ambitions have put some noses out of joint along the way. Considered by some as “brash,” their efforts to modernise have been met with some resistance. In a sign of the times, the club left its North London roots behind to lease Watford FC’s Vicarage Road ground. Atmosphere at Saracens games has been compared to the razzmatazz of American Football; and some consider the air-horns and piped music, which has become a feature of regular visits to Wembley, to be out of keeping with rugby traditions.
The club has now returned to North London and a permanent home, Allianz Park in Hendon, with its improved facilities providing year round access for community use. Projects such as the Hitz mentoring programme (backed by the Aviva Premiership and Barclays), gives young adults support with education and has enhanced their employment prospects, proving that initiatives with sport at their centre can make a real difference to people’s lives.
Rugby Union has been growing in popularity since England’s 2003 World Cup victory and is steadily establishing itself as a rival to football in terms of national interest. Saracens are well placed to capitalise and establish themselves as an important club on and off the pitch.
How far can Rugby move to establish itself as a serious challenger to football in the affections of sporting fans?