Sarries winning popularity contest
Graham Jenkins at Allianz Park
March 3, 2013
Saracens' Charlie Hodgson slots a kick during his side's first league outing at Allianz Park © Getty Images
It is clearly very easy to dislike Saracens. They are intentionally loud and brash in everything they do and make no apologies as they bid to shake up the game and build awareness of their brand. Abrasive characters have rubbed the establishment and their rivals up the wrong way while their ability to dominate the transfer market and their varied vocal efforts have infuriated many and won them few new friends.
They even tested the loyalty of their hardcore supporters with a 15-year stay at Vicarage Road that on the rare occasion may be half full but the majority of the time would be worryingly empty with the atmosphere more often than not manufactured by a painfully-keen PA. Ever-increasing 'away' days at the likes of Wembley and Twickenham appeased those fans starved of a thrilling matchday experience and lured many others in their thousands but it appeared to have little impact on the speed of the turnstiles back in Watford.
The club persevered, convinced that the right stadium combined with their unique matchday efforts would have fans flocking and it appears they were right. There wasn't a spare seat when the club made its league debut at their new Allianz Park home and they have yet to take the 'Sold Out' signs down with Sunday's clash against London Welsh and the forthcoming game against Harlequins also attracting 10,000 capacity crowds.
They suddenly can't move for fast and firm friends. The limits of their new home means that they cannot yet rival the likes of Leicester, Harlequins, Northampton or Gloucester in terms of attendance but when you consider that Saracens would normally only attract half that figure to Vicarage Road there is clearly cause for celebration in north London.
There is a buzz in the air in the London Borough of Barnet and this time it is the product of genuine excitement. Girls were seen and heard screaming following a sighting of Saracens and England fly-half Owen Farrell ahead of kick off on Sunday with English rugby's current pin-up clearly more than a match for One Direction in this neck of the woods. But this was not just a teenage dream, their unbridled delight was just an extension of the general mood in NW4.
"I think it is exciting," Saracens' chief executive Ed Griffiths told ESPN. "We always believed if we moved to a stadium as accessible as this in the heart of north London we would draw strong support and to have sold out the first three games is great - Quins is sold out and we now move on to the Worcester game. I think people are enjoying it and hopefully we can sustain that."
So what is suddenly packing them in? The novelty of a new home is certainly a draw with the Premiership's first artificial pitch also a key element to the success of the venture. It also helps that Sarries are once again challenging for domestic honours with their latest 35-14 victory over Welsh taking them top of the Premiership table. The quality of rugby produced by Mark McCall's side has rarely been questioned but the style has not always lived up to the razzmatazz off the field but all could be about to change.
"We said it would be a safer, faster and more entertaining game and I think that has been proven in the first three games and long may that continue," said Griffiths. "Who knows what the future holds but I know a lot of other clubs are looking at this seriously and I think artificial turf bring a whole new dimension to the game."
There is certainly a zip to the game that may be missing from other matches played on grass pitches at this time of year. The playing surface has been described as 'an end of summer' pitch and an unprecedented level of 'shock pads' in the foundations provide a spring in the step of even the bulkiest of players. The sound footing offered by the wholly synthetic surface not only hints at a faster game but a more brutal one - just ask anyone charged with tackling the likes of London Welsh giant Alfie To'oala or Sarries' Joel Tomkins with a full head of steam. The gasps from the stands are set to become as much a part of the Allianz Park experience as the Saracens-branded meat pies, ale and the heady mix of smells emanating from the exotic selection of fast food available on 'Saracens Street'.
The influence of the pitch goes far beyond the rugby that is served up. Writing in the matchday programme, chairman Nigel Wray hailed the fact that, "hardly a day goes by without local schools, local clubs, local youth teams all using AP". The resilience of the surface allows the community full use of the facilities when Saracens are not present with that co-habitation engaging fans old and new. That policy of 'keep on the pitch' rather than off it also allows fans to tread the same turf as their side post-game in another welcome tradition that will only strengthen the bond with supporters - both their own and those visiting.
Saracens captain Steve Borthwick leads his side out ahead of their first Premiership game at Allianz Park © Getty Images
Wray admits that there is still work to do at Allianz Park with the diggers draped in bunting for matchday with construction work on-going while impromptu and ill-timed bursts of opera courtesy of the 'fat lady' highlight the fact they are not hitting all the right notes off the pitch. But Wray has no doubts that they are onto something - you guessed it - 'special'.
"I hope we are not being too complacent here, it's been a great start and Allianz Park is and will be a very special place," he wrote. "As I have said before, it is without doubt the best located ground in the country, set in a conservation area, surrounded by a dozen or more pitches and with a few million people within a 30 minute drive."
Temporary stands bookend either end of the pitch but there is nothing transient about Saracens' commitment to creating a more enticing product and in the process a more attractive Premiership. Their enthusiasm, illustrated emphatically by their army of volunteers, the Pioneers, many of whom saw distinguished service during the Olympics - is infectious.
"A ticket to watch Saracens has been transformed from very easy to get to being almost the hottest ticket in town," declared Gordon Banks, stadium director. "Word of mouth is the best form of marketing, and the word is clearly getting around that Allianz Park offers great rugby and a great match day experience at a brand new venue in the heart of north London."
Many will continue to criticise and ridicule the club for their vision as if they are endangering the sport but in truth they are attempting to inject fresh life into it and as a result it is increasingly easy to like Saracens.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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