Challenge of a field of dreams

the Saracens director of rugby, says a new home needs a new look
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Everybody is aware of the radical changes that rugby union has undergone in the last few years and nowhere is this more apparent than at my own club Saracens.

Less than two years ago we played at a windswept ground with no more than 1,500 seats - and most of them were temporary. Today we play in an all-seater stadium with a 22,000 capacity and a lush playing surface more accustomed to the boots of Ronnie Rosenthal than Richard Hill. In many ways things have improved beyond our wildest dreams, but two big challenges remain.

To begin with, how do we attract enough spectators to fill the stadium in a town where football has traditionally been the No 1 sport - particularly now that the "dream team" of Elton John and Graham Taylor has been recently reinstated?

This is a long-term task. We have moved 20 miles away from our north London base and now have to "root" the club in a new location. The key element is to become a part of the town and to this end we have appointed a Community Development Officer whose sole aim is to raise our profile within Watford and the surrounding area. A series of ticket offers, school visits, charity programmes and player appearances have begun - the intention being to make Saracens well-known within the local sporting scene.

We have made a strategic decision to play all our home games on Sundays so that sports fans can go to the football on Saturday and the rugby the next day. I can see no reason why the same people won't watch and enjoy both sports. To attract young supporters every effort has been made to make viewing affordable - a pounds 15 season ticket for all under-16 year olds is amazing value for money when you consider the quality of the players on view.

The second challenge, paradoxically, is to ensure that a rugby culture is successfully transplanted into a football stadium. Anybody who thinks professional rugby can survive on gates of 2,000-3,000 from ABC1 social backgrounds is not living in the real world. So the sport has to reach out to a wider audience, but at the same time not lose the special ambience that attracted so many people to rugby in the first place.

In an attempt to square this particular circle we have invested a substantial sum of money into the building of a set of "club rooms" at Vicarage Road. You know the sort of thing - large bar, lots of space, players mingling with supporters after the game, not too many jobsworths around. Somewhere that feels like it belongs to you and where you are not just a tenant.

Indeed, the safe yet exciting atmosphere so prevalent at many rugby grounds could be developed much further. If you look at the experience of sports such as American football and ice hockey then it is clear that we could do much more in the areas of pre-match and half-time entertainment. Times have moved on from the days when the match itself was enough. We have to make the whole occasion exciting and enjoyable. I accept that some efforts to date have been so small in scale as to be faintly embarrassing - if you go down this route you have to go for it in a big way. But there are so many competing attractions that you have to get out there and make a bit of a noise.

Anyone who remembers the 1995 World Cup final and the huge impact made by the booming PA system at Ellis Park will realise that British rugby has a long way to go in terms of staging major games. Some traditional supporters may recoil in horror but the fact remains that we have to expand the spectator base and bring in people who have never watched a club game before. They may not even know the rules or scoring system very well - so they need some help in understanding the game.

We have installed a new scoreboard which not only gives the score but flashes up instructional messages such as "Penalty to Saracens - offside". We even went so far as to ask the referees whether or not they would object to being miked up to the crowd. Unfortunately the powers that be weren't quite ready for this, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. Rugby is a marvellous game but it is extremely complex - and to the uninitiated it can appear a bit confusing. Anything that clears up misunderstandings among the crowd can only be a good thing.

Whether or not these and other future developments will be sufficient to achieve our objectives only time will tell. Rest assured that we will not fail for the want of trying or a reluctance to take a chance.

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