Mind Games: Clubs to rule the game

2014-11-23 15:00

The amazing success of ­Saracens, the English rugby club with strong South African ties, is illustrative of the changing face of rugby.

Coupled with the absence of many stars in Saturday’s Wales vs South ­Africa test in Cardiff because of their club commitments, it is perhaps proof that in the not too distant future clubs, rather than international unions, will rule the game.

From finishing 10th in the Premiership and drawing the second-lowest crowds a decade ago, Saracens have moved to a new stadium and regularly put up the “House Full” signs.

In the 2004/05 season, the club’s total ­attendance was 73?084, but last season they attracted a world record club crowd of 83?889 at Wembley Stadium for a match against ­fellow Londoners Harlequins.

South African business magnate Johann Rupert’s Remgro owns 50% of the club (his daughter Caroline and former Springbok captains Morné du Plessis and Francois Pienaar are on the board), but the driving force behind Saracens’ phenomenal growth is ­another man with strong South African ties, CEO Edward Griffiths.

It is Griffiths’ vision and willingness to take on the “big idea” that has seen the club emerge as the tone-setters.

Clubs are now so dominant, the World Rugby has had to agree to specially set aside “windows” for internationals; the Boks’ upcoming test at the Millennium Stadium being a case in point with top players such as Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger and JP Pietersen having to sing for their supper at their respective clubs.

Apart from their success domestically, ­Saracens have branched out to play matches against South African franchises – the Sharks (CEO John Smit captained and played for them after ending his Springbok career) and Western Province, and have set about creating a worldwide string of Saracens clubs.

The Saracens Global Network now ­includes nine clubs in Seattle, Moscow, Tonga, Sao Paulo, Tbilisi (Georgia), Timisoara (Romania), Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi. The aim is to provide support, kit and coaching to these clubs but it does mean Saracens have scouts on the ground to spot top emerging players.

Seattle OPSB (Old Puget Sound Beach) Rugby Football Club became the eighth club to join the Saracens network and chairman ­Nigel Wray welcomed them with these revealing words: “Developing rugby union in the US has not been easy because of the sheer size of the country and also because of the huge popularity of the main professional sports, yet there remains huge potential.”

One young player from each club in the network gets an opportunity to win a place in the Saracens Academy, a pathway into the professional game. But more importantly, ­Saracens gains a footprint in a new market. A part of the Saracens plan is community and family involvement and their model is being mimicked at Toulon in France, where maverick club owner Mourad Boudjellal pays top salaries to get the best and is often at loggerheads with the French Rugby Federation.

Robert Gumede and Ivor Ichikowitz probably had something similar in mind when they bought just under half of the Golden Lions but got cold feet when the reality of the full package of fielding teams in every competition, assisting clubs and schools, and managing a stadium hit home.

Griffiths recently told the Rugby Expo in London that while it was understandable much of the focus in rugby was on next year’s World Cup, 2016 was going to be a bigger year for the sport because of Sevens being included in the Rio Olympics. “That is by far the most significant event the sport has faced ­because we go from a sport that is taken seriously in 10 or 12 countries to a sport that is taken seriously in many times more than that.

“That is a huge opportunity for growth.”

The future will tell whether it is the ­professional clubs or staid old national ­unions who make the most of it.

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