Stand up for the Saracens
Graham Jenkins reports from Wembley Stadium
September 12, 2009
Saracens fans bask in the sunshine during their clash with Northampton at Wembley Stadium © Getty Images
The Guinness Premiership broke new ground on Saturday with the first ever game staged at Wembley Stadium in North London.
Saracens' narrow victory over Northampton may not have been the greatest advert for the game but as a spectacle it went some way to fulfilling the hype surrounding the occasion. A bruising contest, it sparked into life in the second half and delivered a rousing finale that included a hint of controversy with the majority of the 44,832 fans present going home happy.
As a marketing experiment the game was a huge success and Sarries must be praised for their bravery in switching the fixture from their usual Vicarage Road home and for taking on the risk - to the tune of the reported £300,000 fee demanded by the landlords.
The bumper crowd may have only half-filled the iconic venue but was surely more than enough to cement the club's plan to stage three more games there this season with one of those games rumoured to be a high-profile clash with the Springboks in November. The newly-crowned Tri-Nations champions are already set to for one mid-week fixture on their forthcoming tour against Leicester Tigers and another against Saracens, recently bolstered by a significant South African investment, now seems likely.
The attendance for Saturday's game was more than twice the previous biggest crowd for a Saracens match in the Premiership - they attracted 19,000 for their league title decider against Newcastle in 1998 - and significantly more than the 9,000 they average at their usual home. The Wembley attendance also came close to matching the 50,000 that Harlequins attracted to Twickenham for their 'Big Match' with Leicester last season.
The utilisation of larger stadiums for high-profile knock-out games is now a common occurrence in the sport but their use for regular season games is a relatively recent phenomenon with the now traditional London Double Header another perfect marriage of marketing and muscle.
Both Saracens and Harlequins, who will also return to England's HQ later this year for the 'Big Match 2', have benefited from the exposure of the Double Header with this season's matches attracting 67,684 fans to Twickenham last weekend.
But in striking out on their own both Saracens and Quins are following the lead of Top 14 side Stade Francais who, under the guidance of president Max Guazzini, have led the way when it comes to selling an event - not just a game.
Cheap tickets have helped lure capacity crowds to the 80,000 all-seater Stade de France for many of the Parisiens' league matches and it is a successful venture they will look to continue this season.
Following the lead of their rivals across the Channel, Saracens priced the tickets attractively for Saturday's fixture - £10 for adults and £5 for U16s - with thousands of families and importantly new fans taking advantage to create a colourful and memorable atmosphere.
Those fans that flocked to Wembley may not have got the camel racing that they had been promised due to health and safety red tape but they did get the Royal Marines, a tug-of-war and dance act Diversity - winners of Britain's Got Talent - and going by the reaction to the latter's high-tempo display they were a big hit.
Sadly the same fate is unlikely to befall Sarries much-hyped song - 'Stand up for the Saracens'. Recorded with the help of follically-challenged pop duo Right Said Fred, the frustratingly catchy song reverberated around the stadium every few minutes as a rallying cry for the team and fans alike.
Saracens long-time chairman Nigel Wray has boldly predicted that they will attract a 90,000 crowd to Wembley within three years. His claim is not born out of greed but commercial necessity.
Writing in the match programme, he said, "For our game, for Saracens to be truly economic, Vicarage Road on its own cannot suffice. We need to have these great events if we are to stay, as we aim to, right in the top flight of European rugby."
Following the latest example of the strength of the Premiership brand, Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty was equally confident. "With the continual growth in club attendances and the vision and imagination of clubs like Saracens, I can see a day in the not too distant future when we have a sell-out club match at Wembley"
The long term key for Sarries is converting these new fans into regular visitors to Vicarage Road. The figures from the Wembley game might not immediately add up, and may even return a loss, but that will not cause too much concern at Saracens with everyone at the club focused on the bigger picture.
Only time will tell if their efforts in making this Wembley experiment a success will draw two, three or four thousand extra people through the turnstiles when Sarries play their third 'home' game of the season against Gloucester later this month.
Club rugby's biggest attendances:
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games