On the road again?
August 5, 2011
Saracens are considering staging one of their home games in next season's Heineken Cup in South Africa © Getty Images
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In days past rugby players used to combine their sporting careers with cricket. Jeff Wilson was a dual-sport international; Dusty Hare was good enough to play first class county cricket with Nottinghamshire as well as racking up a world record points tally with Leicester and England.
Thanks to the demands of the pre-season campaign and the need for professional rugby players to have a few weeks of much needed R and R, here in England June and July now see the attention of sports fans turn to watching Andrew Strauss's men fit in some play between the showers and ponder the fortunes of their club for the next few months.
Which players will have an impact? Who will be the surprise package in the league? Just what percentage of our squad will be heading to New Zealand? Just exactly why I am I forking out this much for my season ticket? These are the standard topics on any fans' forum.
But it takes a very special club to become the focus of debate among supporters throughout the Premiership. Yes, Saracens have provoked much conversation - if not that many headlines - thanks to the leak, and subsequent confirmation, that they are exploring the option of taking next January's Heineken Cup pool match against Biarritz to Cape Town.
Should the men from Hertfordshire get the nod from the appropriate authorities they'll be adding South Africa to Romania, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium (until the snow intervened anyway) to the list of countries outside Europe's big six to have hosted Heineken Cup rugby.
However, in the 500-plus posts on the Saracens SportNetwork message board, and the many pages on other supporter forums, no one can quite see the point of taking what could be a crucial game against Biarritz nearly 6,000 miles away from Vicarage Road, where after all Saracens have a pretty good record recently.
Chief executive Edward Griffiths, as astute a media operator as there is in the Premiership, has to his credit answered many of the criticisms that have been thrown at the idea on the aforementioned Saracens supporters forum. He is sticking to his theme that taking the game to South Africa is about tapping up "support at source" and that it is not an initiative that has come from SAIL, the investment group that has taken on plenty of the financial burden of keeping the club afloat.
Nevertheless the nagging impression is that this match is for SAIL's benefit, not for anyone in Watford or the surrounding area, and a chance for them to show off to their South African stakeholders their successful venture from the UK. Just how will this "support at source" actually benefit Saracens? OK, so a few shirts may be sold, but this is a long way off - literally as well as metaphorically - from turning someone into a die-hard Fezhead.
There may be the upside of some new corporate partners. But, according to The Guardian, Saracens lost over £6 million in their last declared financial year, and whatever Griffiths says about making Saracens a viable concern as a standalone business it will take a lot of sponsorship deals - and a lot fewer trips to Oktoberfest and Miami - to fill that black hole.
There is precedent for competitions going global - the Super 15 match at Twickenham earlier this year, the ongoing NFL International Series at Wembley and the more recent NBA regular season games at London's O2 Arena. Oh, and London Wasps taking their Anglo-Welsh Cup game against Harlequins to Abu Dhabi.
Unlike the first three examples this proposal falls into the same category as Wasps' venture into the Middle East. There were more than enough Kiwi and South African expats in London to make the Crusaders' clash against the Sharks a success, which after all would not have been moved were it not for the tragic events in Christchurch.
The National Football League has a long-standing and sizeable support in the UK, which made the International Series completely understandable - even if some of our colleagues on ESPN.com may not agree with the concept - and basketball is a growing sport on this side of the pond.
Is there a demonstrable desire in South Africa for a Heineken Cup match? Given the antipathy shown throughout the Southern Hemisphere towards competitions from the north it is certainly doubtable. Hence the comparison with Wasps, who received plenty of criticism for taking a game overseas and as yet have not shown that there was any tangible benefit for having done so.
On another rugby website out there in big wide webland it was suggested that Saracens need to concentrate on being a community club in North London rather than trying to become a version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ironically, Saracens are actually a terrific club from a community point of view; their initiatives have led the way in terms of community involvement and the Hitz project has really shown the value of rugby in helping youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds.
But where the club has failed is in turning such community activity, and on-field success, into bums on seats. For all the 40,000-crowds at Wembley the week in, week out attendances at Vicarage Road have remained resolutely low, especially in comparison to the other clubs in the top half of the Premiership table last season.
Griffiths has admitted that Saracens have 3,000 season ticket holders for the coming campaign, which for the reigning Premiership champions, participants in two successive Grand Finals and a club with a burgeoning reputation as a production line for young English talent is a pretty poor return.
After all it is not as if there is not an appetite for rugby in London. Just 15 years ago Harlequins were playing in front of crowds in the low thousands. Now they regularly sell out the 14,000-capacity Twickenham Stoop, without having had anything like the success Saracens have had in the past three seasons.
As Leicester, Northampton and for the most part Gloucester have shown, for a rugby club to be viable it needs to be multi-faceted, to have the support base to fill a stadium and facilities to be used throughout the rest of the year as an additional source of income.
What is obvious is that professional rugby on its own is not enough to create a viable commercial concern that can stand on its own two feet should a backer decide to withdraw funding, something that Saracens - Nigel Wray notwithstanding - would not be able to do if SAIL opted out of the project.
And this is what needs to be made clear, how this proposed trip to Cape Town fits into the long-term strategy for Saracens. If it's just an ego trip, someone from the club should own up and say so, at least everyone will know where they stand. Because at the moment, despite the plethora of talk about making Saracens a viable commercial concern, all the evidence points otherwise.
Of course the final decision rests with ERC, and it would be understandable should they, and indeed Heineken, look to take their competition into the massive rugby market that South Africa represents. But would it ultimately prove positive for Saracens, and the European club game in general? That remains to be seen, and plenty of people on whom the lifeblood of a club depends still need to be convinced.
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