Saracens look to Springboks as springboard to success


RUGBY: John O’Sullivanon how Brendan Venter and the South African consortium will be ruthless in achieving goals

IN JANUARY, 2008 Johann Rupert is reputed to have paid Saracens owner Nigel Wray a sum in excess of €11.4 million for a 50 per cent stake in the English Premiership club, some four years after the South African billionaire businessman had tried to buy the National League One club Wakefield RFC, in conjunction with Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. The speculation was Rupert planned to rename Wakefield, “London Tribe” and would staff the club chiefly with South Africans. The RFU blocked the venture on the basis the club’s league status should not be put up for sale.

Rupert, chairman of the Swiss-based luxury goods company Richemont, which owns Cartier, Van Cleef Arpels, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Dunhill, IWC, Panerai and Montblanc as well as other interests, installed daughter Caroline on the board and set about a process that, to its critics, equates to South Africanising the north London club.

It’s an easy assertion to make bearing in mind the first-team squad contains 11 players born in South Africa, the club’s director of rugby Brendan Venter is a former Springbok international, so too the commercial director Cobus Visagie, while two members of the board, Francois Pienaar and Morne du Plessis, have captained South Africa.

Saracens chief executive officer Edward Griffiths shares the same nationality, as does another board member Jannie Durand.

The symmetry in identity in terms of the club’s power base unearths one further connection that binds four of the aforementioned to one momentous rugby moment. Pienaar captained the Springboks to their 1995 World Cup triumph, du Plessis was team manager, Griffiths press officer and Venter came on in that clash with New Zealand, replacing James Small.

The analogy “if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck”, springs to mind, although Griffiths points to the Saracens academy that has produced a host of talented young English players like Noah Cato, Will Fraser, Jackson Wray and Jamie George.

He does admit the club is courting the ex-pat community of South Africans in London, having stated, “Saracens have made substantial losses over the past decade and we want to attract an audience far beyond our core support. There are half a million South Africans in London so, of course, we are trying to bring them to Vicarage Road.”

Maybe not for much longer. While Saracens play Leinster at Wembley this evening, they play the majority of their home games at Vicarage Road, where Watford FC are their landlords. Watford activated a break clause in the agreement last May on the basis the rent which Saracens pay – a reported €557,000 per annum – needed to increase. Had the soccer club not activated the clause Saracens could have played at Vicarage Road until 2017 without any increase in the rent.

Watford gave their tenants until last month to indicate their intentions with regard to next summer when the lease elapses but Saracens have remained tight-lipped, other than Griffiths’ observation that: “The decision as to where Saracens play is crucial; it could hardly be more important to the future of the club.”

Griffiths isn’t afraid to ruffle establishment feathers, having accused the English RFU of governing the sport “like a rural prep school”. He cherishes the belief Saracens need to be innovative and welcoming, to market their brand aggressively.

Founded in 1876 by the old boys of the Philological School in Marylebone, central London, Saracens took on something of a minstrel quality, wandering to 11 different home grounds before settling at Bramley Road in 1939.

It wasn’t until the advent of professionalism in rugby union that the club become serious players, securing substantial financial backing that allowed them to attract players like Pienaar and Philippe Sella. It coincided with a move to Enfield FC’s ground before swapping that for Vicarage Road in 1997.

Their first trophy of note came the following year when they beat London Wasps 48-18 in the English Cup final but subsequent honours failed to materialise.

The club was never afraid to sign marquee names like Tim Horan, Thomas Castaignede, Chris Jack and high-profile coaches including Wayne Shelford, Rod Kafer, Alan Gaffney and Eddie Jones before Venter’s arrival.

There has also been a notable Irish input in the past with players like Paddy Johns and Paul Wallace wearing the black jersey, while Cork-born, former Ireland wing Darragh O’Mahony is still the club’s all-time leading try scorer (26).

Venter and the South African consortium represent hard-nosed ambition that’s not afraid to be ruthless in achieving goals or in staring down authority. Prior to Venter’s arrival in the summer of 2009, 15 players were cut from the roster on his say-so.

Venter missed last week’s defeat to Clermont Auvergne but he’ll marshal his side at Wembley today. If a team mirrors its coach then Leinster are in for a world of trouble on the pitch.