New crusader at Saracens

2009-03-06 00:00

If the newly-appointed chief executive of Saracens is to be believed — and there are some who suggest that may be a step too far — imminent developments at the English Premiership club will benefit not only the club, but also English rugby, expatriate South Africans in London and SA Rugby as well.

It is, he says, a “win-win-win-win” situation.

Some current Saracens supporters, staff and even players are apparently upset by media reports that their 133-year-old club has been taken over by South Africans ruthlessly intent on gutting everything they have known and cherished and turning the club into something resembling London South Africa.

The CEO says it ain’t so. He says the club has indeed entered a process of change — from a club that has generally underperformed in the professional era and is losing in excess of R35 million per year — into a bold, dynamic club that achieves success on the field and doubles its average home crowd from 7 500 to 15 000 and becomes commercially viable off the field.

He urges the Sarries core to see the SA dimension, through VenFin’s 50% shareholding in the club’s holding company and the appointment of Brendan Venter as director of rugby with effect from July 1, as a genuine opportunity and not a threat, as something to be welcomed and not feared. He says English club rugby is entering a severe recession, with the total losses of the 12 Premiership clubs exceeding R300 million; the SA element, he says, will help to sustain the club through tough times.

Some officials at the Rugby Football Union are concerned that one of the country’s leading premiership clubs has reportedly been invaded and annexed by an alien rugby power.

The CEO says it ain’t so. He says the South Africans have taken an interest, not control, and that the club will continue to develop its acclaimed academy, vigorously recruiting leaders in the national under-18 and under-20 squads, and producing even more talented young English players like Andy Saull, Noah Cato and Alex Goode, and nurturing them and then delivering them as potential national heroes into the England team.

Some of the South Africans living in London are concerned that their community, estimated at anything between 500 000 and one million (no one knows for sure because so many carry UK passports), tends to float around places like Putney and Wimbledon, but lacks a real gathering point. These hordes of expatriates left home for a variety of reasons, yet whatever they say about BEE, crime and corruption, almost without exception, they say they still “support the Boks”. Somewhere deep inside, rugby is the glue that pulls them together.

The CEO says a top English rugby club can fill the void by making South Africans feel welcome, offering a King’s Park-type experience before and after the game, developing a genuine gees and becoming a regular meeting place, in the process dramatically improving the daily lives of many “Saffers”.

Some officials within SA Rugby, and the provincial unions, are concerned by the emergence of an English club reportedly intent on luring their best players away to Europe.

The CEO says it ain’t so. He says it is inevitable that top SA rugby players will attract offers from the frozen north, just like SA dentists, doctors and business people etcetera, but that Saracens can become a kind of “safe haven” for SA players seeking an opportunity in Europe. A Springbok heading to France is effectively lost to his province and his country for the duration of his contract, but the close connections mean a Springbok heading to Saracens could yet play for his Super 14 team and for his country.

He says Saracens is a partner, not a predator, for SA Rugby and believes that, pending discussions on issues such as dual registration, a successful arrangement can be agreed.

All this is well and good, perhaps the current concern on all sides will ease and the promised win-win-win-win situation will emerge ... as long as the chief executive of Saracens can be believed. At this point, perhaps 700 words too late, I should declare an interest: I am the chief executive of Saracens.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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