London South Africa RFC to become a reality?
Is this the demise of one of the Guinness Premiership’s oldest clubs?
Recent events have changed the face of modern-day rugby and transformed how clubs are run. Saracens, my rugby team, are the proverbial underachievers of rugby Union, the Tottenham Hotspur or Newcastle United of rugby and are about to undergo changes of monumental proportions.
Ever heard of London Irish? Irish ex-pats can take solace in the fact that their team currently find themselves 3rd, two points behind leaders Leicester. So…who are the estimated 750,000 rugby loving ‘exiled’ South Africans supposed to support then? Luckily for them London South Africa is looking more and more likely to becoming a reality.
Nigel Wray, Saracen’s long time backer, was able to coax £7 million from a South African consortium last year and has sold half the club. The consortium is headed by Johann Rupert, “the Roman Abramovich of the Cape winelands” and now includes Francois Pienaar and Morne Du Plessis. As a result there has been a controversial major restructuring of Saracens rugby club. The aim, it appears, is to eventually create their very own London South Africa team made up mainly by their own countrymen.
This will see 15 of the 38 current senior players leave in the summer, including Chris Jack, Census Johnston and Kevin Sorrell, all important first team players. The Professional Rugby Players’ Association has also expressed its discontent at the treatment of these players and a potential influx of springboks.
Consequently Australian director of rugby, Eddie Jones has left the club, earlier this month. Jones left to become general manager of a Japanese club (Suntory) and no clear reason was given for his departure. But what is clear is he was unhappy with this crippling overhaul and the treatment shown to some of his players. New coach Brendan Venter (11th coach in as many years!) promises to recruit younger, cheaper squad members (read South Africans).
Saracen’s new smooth-talker chief excutive, Edward Griffiths admits that when the new squad is announced fans will not necessarily be impressed especially after the the high profile names that have graced the pitch at Vicarage Road in recent years. Having said that, he explains: “If any club has proved that parachuting in high profile, high cost southern hemisphere players towards the end of their careers, doesn’t work, it’s Saracens. That is absolutely not what is going to happen.”
So, it remains to be seen whether this change in tactic pays off. Griffiths wants to also try and attract more fans. He wants to increase revenue, which is extremely difficult given the current economic climate and within a sport that is still seriously suffering from relatively low match attendances. The plan is to play at least one home game next season at Wembley, similar to Stade Francais hosting games at the national stadium, Stade de France in Paris.
All of this said and done, there is no need to panic at Vicarage Road. There are still plenty of reasons to be positive; the London Rugby derby clash with Wasps on Sunday was a sell out. Saracens grinded out a brilliant 19-14 victory, to keep their hopes of a Heineken Cup spot (top six) next season alive and effectively rule out Wasp’s chances of earning a play-off place. Saracen’s signing of England captain Steven Borthwick from Bath this season, has been pivotal. He has brilliant leaderships skills and is a good player to build the new team around.
I, for one, hope he can help bring success to the north London club as he did whilst captaining Bath when the west country outfit won their first trophy in a decade at the end of last season by defeating Worcester Warriors in the European Challenge Cup.
At the end of the day, trophies speak louder than anything. The chairman, Mark Sinderberry, main financial backer Nigel Wray, his ‘Saffers’, and the tens of thousands of fans who descend on Watford every season, crave this more than anything- silverware- something Saracens haven’t achieved since winning the Tetley Bitter Cup in 1998.
Time for this South African consortium to deliver. Does one trust Edward Griffiths when he defiantly says, “The team is called Saracens and that’s not changing. Definitely, definitely not. No London South Africa, not Saraboks, not any of this nonsense,” who knows?