July 25, 2012
Andy Saull and Justin Melck take a look at Sarries future home at Copthall Stadium © Getty Images
This season will be a notably nomadic one for the innovative, multi-national, gloriously bonkers professional rugby organisation that goes by the name of Saracens.
They are referring to it themselves as "a season of transition" although it feels as if they have been in constant transition since the day Nigel Wray became the owner in late 1995.
The latest development was Tuesday's announcement of a six-year sponsorship and stadium naming rights deal with Allianz. It allied the German banking and insurance firm with Saracens' wealthy South African backers, so this is no purely English operation as everyone knows. And perhaps that is the essence of the Saracens story as it bounds along, occasionally knocking over the furniture, but never going far without surprising or shocking the onlooker.
This reporter has been looking on from a closer distance than most. I was born, grew up and now live in Barnet, and I can say it was indeed glorious to be at the Copthall athletics stadium and see half a dozen mechanical diggers churning away at the foundations of the new east stand at what will be known as Allianz Park. We used to have our schools' athletics finals there, and once upon a time I hopped, failed to skip and more or less fell into a Copthall sandpit competing in a triple jump for which I had much more enthusiasm than aptitude.
The simple facilities of the Copthall of my school days changed hardly at all between the 1980s and now - symptomatic of an attitude to sport in this area of north London that put it beneath commerce, retail, transport and most other priorities in residents' lives and the local council's spending.
The football club I have always supported - Barnet FC, currently in League Two - had a go in the 1990s at moving into Copthall and renovating the run-down stadium. It would have been a superb and natural fit but it didn't happen, for reasons of cost and politics and local nimbyism. The planning application was approved by Barnet Council but rejected by Labour's John Prescott who was the then Minister for London.
Two Tories, Boris Johnson as Mayor of London and Eric Pickles as Local Government Minister, gave Saracens' plans the go-ahead this year. Inevitably I have mixed feelings witnessing Saracens' literally ground-breaking work - many Barnet football fans would have winced at seeing a couple of local councillors and the borough's mayor in his chains and frock coat being feted at Copthall on Tuesday - but as a rugby and sports lover I believe it will be good to have a new 10,000 capacity stadium in north London, and for the Saracens staff to continue their missionary work with schools in the surrounding area.
Wray was a schoolboy at nearby Mill Hill in the 1960s and his home is a seven-minute drive from Copthall, sorry, Allianz Park. "We looked at it 10 or 12 years back," he told me, "but there wasn't the political will then to do anything. I have to say that Ed Griffiths [Saracens' chief executive] made our games at Wembley happen and he has made this happen."
Wembley is just one of a variety of venues on Saracens' fixture list this season as they await the completion of the stadium that will have an artificial pitch - a venture given amazingly gung-ho backing by the normally passive International Board and Rugby Football Union - and demountable stands on top of the athletics track. Wray likened the desired effect to Clermont Auvergne's Stade Marcel Michelin, with spectators sitting tight to the touchlines and dead-ball lines, though it will have to go some to match the French club's steepling stands and seething atmosphere.
Cape Town, Brussels, Milton Keynes, Vicarage Road, Fulham FC's Craven Cottage and the Honourable Artillery Company ground are either confirmed or rumoured ports of call for the Saracens ship helmed by Griffiths. You cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and neither Enfield FC, where Sarries set up home for a season in 1996-7, nor Watford FC, where they have resided since then, emerged better for the Saracens experience. Enfield's Southbury Road ground is now a retail park and one side of Vicarage Road is condemned amid money problems for the host club.
But Saracens sail on, with the financial clout to back their schemes. Most other organisations would have fretted about announcing a Heineken Cup match in Cape Town, as Saracens did last season, only for it to fall through for a lack of agreement with the hosts.
Sarries have made a huge success of taking their games on the road © Getty Images
There was also a match billed for Abu Dhabi in March that did not take place, and one in Hong Kong last month that did. It is almost becoming easier to list where Saracens would not consider playing than where they would. Back at base, Wray insisted a 10,000 capacity was viable - compared with, say, Leicester's 24,000 - as the commercial goal is for the stadium to always be over-subscribed.
I asked Alex Goode, Sarries' recently capped England fullback, whether flitting from ground to ground was bad for the team, who were league champions in 2011 and finished last season two points behind Harlequins before losing at Leicester in the play-off semi-finals.
"Rugby is about not giving excuses," Goode said. "One of our best results last season was away to Ospreys. We were delayed on the train, basically dropped our bags at the hotel and ran to the ground to play, but we said we would not use that as an excuse for not performing.
"I think teams up their intensity at home. Gloucester are unbelievable at home, the way they kick-chase, tackle and use the energy they get from the crowd. But having a lot of away games at the start of the season might work well for us. We pride ourselves on the way we play away and we have set club records in the last couple of years, at Leicester and Bath and Northampton and Gloucester.
"The days we have played at Twickenham and Wembley have been fantastic for the players. You get a buzz from days like those. There will be worries over the artificial pitch. Some people will argue mud is a part of rugby. There are always worries about everything. I'd say when it gets wet and cold in the winter it's tough to play a lot of rugby. Here we will have a hard pitch to play on every week, and that should allow for an expansive game."
So as Saracens put down new roots while exploring the world, was Wray aiming to challenge the "Heart of London" brand that the champions Harlequins have given themselves? "Twickenham [where Quins play] isn't in London, as far as I know," he said, with a twinkle.
"We have a London postcode and the best located ground in London."And as he went off to be photographed with the Saracens players in front of the diggers, he looked like a man for whom the earth was moving.
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