There’s always something satisfying about seeing a big talker being cut down to size, and Saracens home quarter-final loss to Clermont Auvergne was not so much a classic of the genre as merely a run of the mill example. Nevertheless, it was rewarding to watch.
The Mole never used to have anything against Saracens. The club brought quality southern hemisphere players like Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar to European rugby in the early days of professionalism, provided a home for Irish internationals Paddy Johns and Paul Wallace when the Irish provinces were way behind in terms of professionalism and was the one and only professional club of Mole hero Richard Hill. They had raucous, good-natured fans in fezzes and used a toy car to bring out the kicking tee
Owner Nigel Wray has poured money into the club since the game went open [and will most likely continue to do so, because he made an absolute mint flogging £22.5m worth of Domino’s Pizza shares last week] and, as Brian Moore points out in this column dating from the end of last season, underwrote many years of financial losses that the club ran up in the early years.
However, since South African group Remgro bought 50% of the club during the 2008-09 season – Saracens are part of ‘Premier Team Holdings Ltd’ under the Media Interests heading – Saracens have become a lot less likable. Firstly, they’re serial whiners in defeat. If it’s not Brendan Venter giving a famous ‘three cheers for Sireli Bobo’, it’s Mark McCall blaming the English salary cap for their decisive loss to Clermont … the day after lowly Edinburgh beat ‘The Aristocrats of Europe©’, Toulouse.
Saracens have also been guilty of playing a horrendous brand of puke rugby over the last couple of seasons, a sort of bish-bash-bosh that has come to define the Premiership and has lowered the common denominator of rugby in England. It’s a reductive method of playing the game, a ‘percentage rugby’ that is tedious to watch for the neutral and [in The Mole’s opinion] fails to get the best out of the talented players at their disposal.
It’s not the Saracens fans that give The Mole the hump – the camera cut to a bunch of old-timers in pin-badged fezs giving it the magic fingers while Owen Farrell lined up a second half place-kick, and it brought back memories of when the Sarries were the most characterful and well-liked of all English clubs – and it’s not the fact that there’s an enormous influx of South Africans backboning the team; in contrast to the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian professional outfits, English teams have to operate under their own steam, with minimal financial assistance from the RFU, and however they choose to do it is up to them, more or less.
It’s not England selecting South African-born Saracens like Brad Barritt, Mouritz Botha and Matt Stevens to play in the Six Nations: the three guys seem like nice lads and they fulfil the IRB criteria, so in The Mole’s opinion, all’s fair in that regard. It’s not even the way they tapped up Northampton’s Chris Ashton mid-season, all though that does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
It’s the attempted transformation of what was once an idiosyncratic club into a somewhat tacky, generic sports brand that grates; the ludicrous attempt to schedule one of their Heineken Cup matches in Capetown, and then the Gary Cook-esque double speak when a stupid idea went predictably tits-up; the ‘bonding trip’ to Miami; the mutton-dressed-as-lamb cheerleaders; the attention-seeking signing of Gavin Henson when he was on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing show, having been out of rugby for more than 18 months; the Clive Woodward-esque, ‘ahead-of-the-curve’ adoption of iPads so that ‘the amount of footage watched by our players last month compared with the previous month increased by something ridiculous like 2,500%’ – you mightn’t be able to argue with Woodward’s accomplishments as English coach, but there was an awful lot of marketing jive and placebo nonsense surrounding the squad during his tenure.
Sarries move to Barnet Copthall will give them a home to call their own, having spent the majority of the professional era as tenants at Watford FC’s Vicarage Road. Wasps’ precipitous tumble from power and their questionable future in the top flight puts the importance of owning your own ground into perspective, and while The Mole feels that many of the community outreach schemes outlined come as a result of demanding planning permission requirements stipulated by the local council rather than any particularly good intentions from the Saracens development board, the probability is that they will play into the club’s hands and make them a part of a community, not just the South Afrian franchise it has looked in danger of becoming in recent times.