With the new season kicking off, AlAn Dymock swings by Allianz Park to see how the reigning men’s and women’s Premiership champs do things…
HE KNOCKBACK never comes. Instead, sisters Hayley and Lauren happily welcome me aboard the Raw Spirit trailer to see the latest players’ venture to hit the Allianz Park concourse.
It’s a cocktail business using coldpress fruit-and-veg juice and booze. A few ex-players already run drinks brands, with Chris Wyles and Alistair Hargreaves lubricating the masses with Wolfpack Lager, and Michael Rhodes slinging gin.
This one is fronted by former Saracens Tim Streather and Mike Ellery – or at least it would be, had the pair not spent the weekend elsewhere, leaving Ellery’s girlfriend Hayley and her sister in charge of masterfully fending off buffoons like me with luridly-coloured drinks…
A cheery wee welcome should be expected. Saracens is one of the more family-friendly clubs on the elite circuit. Most clubs are open, but catering for kids seems like a particular USP here in North London. Maybe it comes from the capital wanderers-style history the team
Thas endured, eventually scrambling from dog-fouled public parks via Watford’s Vicarage Road to find a home in Barnet. As the club stalked into the future, it has had to adapt. The welcome mat is definitely rolled out for anyone who wants to make use of it.
Saracens men and women are the reigning champions of their respective English top flights. They’re due a visit for a Welcome To My Club feature. However, as we survey the place on a gameless fan day ahead of the new season, the wholesomeness of it all is nailed home.
“It’s run like an Argentinian club,” Richard Plain tells us. This fan, who insists he is better known as ‘The White Helmet’ due to the pith helmet he regularly sports in the stands – “the name could be misconstrued” he does concede – has come here for six years.
Plain made a pact with an old friend that when they could afford it, they would regularly attend pro rugby games. He admits he preferred the Quins brand of rugby at the time but he lived closer
to Sarries. On his first visit he knew he would fall in love with the club.
He explains his take: “The Argentinian way is very community-based. It’s not just about the sport, it’s about the whole area. There’s so much connected to helping people in need, like helping kids with disabilities or setting up a school, which is great. That’s part of (owner) Nigel Wray’s plan and what the club’s about. It’s lovely being a part of it.”
Lovely. Yeah, that’s the thought that ricochets around as our snapper eggs on kids to punt rugby balls my way at the Ruggerbugs section. This is part of that strategy to ensure kids aren’t bored. Judging by the relish in those little eyes, they are having the time of my short life.
If it seems the business has everything in order, though, owner Wray makes it clear it took sweet time to get to this.
“We’re almost going back a quarter of a century now, but at the beginning of it all nobody really understood what it was. It was, ‘Oh we love the game, let’s get involved’. I wish I could have ten or 20 or 30 years back because I’d do it better.
“I made so many mistakes. Changing coaches all the time. I think you only know you don’t get it with hindsight.”
With four league titles for the men, and the women taking the inaugural Tyrells Premier 15s, the play is really clicking. Off-field, there are grand schemes afoot. Plans are there to replace the yellowing West Stand, though capacity should only increase by around 500 or so. There are also plans for a new high-performance centre around St Albans.
And the club are courting investors. Last year the co-owners, Johann
Rupert’s Remgro group, pulled out of the club. Though comfortable about the fact the club is unlikely to break even this season, Wray does want a partner.
He explains: “There are a few people who are very interested in coming in.
The most important thing is that the people have got to get on. I’m not going! So any money that comes in goes into the club, not to me. So it has to be a genuine partnership with me.
“It takes time. I’m not the sort of person who does much due diligence, actually, I just say, ‘Yeah, I like you’. That’s my nature. I’ve met people I like and I think they like me but we’ll see how it goes. Nothing’s done yet. But it’s not far away.”
Nor is the start of the men’s or women’s season. Whether there’s atmosphere or not, fans here are used to winning rugby.
“Like an A rgent i n ian club, i t ’ s n o t just abou t the spor t , it’s about the whol e ar ea”
Women’s coach Rob Cain left to take over USA Women and Alex Austerberry comes in. According to flanker Marlie Packer, there are other tweaks ahead for a side over-reliant on the pack at times.
“We need to become more of a team again, but keep that winning philosophy,” Packer says. “Our personal discipline can improve. If you look at our final in Ealing, Quins could have beaten us if they’d kicked a few of the penalties we gave away. We got let off there.
“Our defence was phenomenal and we went three or four games not conceding a point. We need to make sure we work hard on that and in attack get big carriers on the ball, but have structure between us. We should play very differently but still excitingly this season.”
Sitting beside Packer is fellow flanker and men’s academy product Jackson Wray. Looking at the season ahead, the stalwart says: “I always want the club to be thinking of ways to do things differently. Whether it’s a new stand, a new training ground, trips, whatever it is there are always things happening.
It’s about making sure that we’re always doing something new.
“I know there’s no American game this year, but we always want to play there every year. No one else wants to go because it’s a waste of a game, but we want it. We want to lead, because we go a long way to be like that on the field.”
Sarries men are famous for bonding trips abroad through the season but Wray goes on to say that part of the club’s true strength is its ability to hold on to people. Packer says that it is very much the same for the women’s side.
Both teams want to blitz the league. What Packer would like to see is more crossover from the men’s and women’s sections – the women playing at Allianz Park is a big plus, but she would like to see the teams supporting each other at games, in the same kit, getting the word out so more fans support the women.
She quips: “Keep doing what we’re doing, playing at the standard we’re playing, then who knows, in a few seasons we might get an off-season (trip) with the boys, show them a thing or two!
“At the moment the gap is closing and they’re supporting us massively.”
Wray, recalling the recent Croatia trip, says with a grin: “To be fair, the yacht we were on has probably sunk by now!”
Refreshing dropDymock enjoys a boozy smoothie, with Hayley and Lauren
New design What the new shirt looks likeMaking time Skipper Brad Barritt Runaway cart Dymock nicks some ice cream
Hard grafters Sarries women train
Next generationA young fan
East cheers Under the stand
Helmet call With Plain and pals
Star powerWith Marlie Packer
Happy helperA volunteer