How we still keep the faith

Mark Evans, Saracens' director of rugby, argues that the new world retains the best of the old
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The Independent Online
If I hear one more sanctimonious platitude about how rugby has lost its soul with the onset of professionalism, then I shall scream. The assumption seems to have been made in certain quarters that the spirit and ethos of the game have been irredeemably lost in a mad rush to grab as much of the filthy lucre on offer as possible. Quite why paying talented and dedicated people to produce a better quality product should automatically mean that they will want to jettison all their traditions and principles I cannot quite fathom.

Indeed, from where I am sitting, I can see a huge number of promising signs and improvements already. Daytime training, fewer players held up at work, better grounds and facilities, more points being scored, world- class foreign players gracing the league, better fitness levels and more club sides in England actually having a chance of winning something (I cannot surely be alone in finding the Bath-Leicester duopoly increasingly dull).

Perhaps even more importantly, I can see no evidence of a reduction in the camaraderie between players, the merciless changing-room banter or the accessibility of the players which have each been a notable feature distinguishing rugby from many other sports. And if the Saracens pre-season training camp is any guide then the traditional Saturday "big night out for the boys" is also alive and well and living in Stirling.

Could it be that most of the teething problems are caused by the rate of change rather than professionalism per se? One year ago, Saracens FC had a turnover of pounds 150,000 per annum, played on a public park and rewarded their players (and coaches) to the tune of 20p per mile and a free tracksuit designed by a colour blind man with a sense of humour.

Today we employ 10 full-time staff and 20 professional players (including two rugby legends and a teenage heart-throb), occupy a new stadium, have an enthusiastic and committed backer and are embarking on large-scale marketing and community programmes.

I defy any organisation, in any walk of life, to undergo that degree of change and not experience some fall-out.

Saracens are just a microcosm of what has been happening in many rugby clubs up and down Britain. Decent, honourable people are struggling to come to terms with a new era and on a national scale that is proving difficult. Undoubtedly recent disputes between Epruc (the body representing the first and second division clubs), the Rugby Football Union and the Home Unions have been damaging to all concerned and have been a public relations disaster for the game as a whole.

But the arguments are about control and structure of the game as much as they are about money. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to come to an arrangement in which the needs of the national side and its feeder clubs can be met. There are as many examples of well-run professional sports - golf and motor racing spring immediately to mind - while others are rife with bribery, drug abuse and general seediness. The real challenge for rugby union is not professionalism but how professionalism is managed.

It is still early days and I remain optimistic. Last Saturday we played Leicester in front of the biggest crowd in our history. The sun shone, the stands were full, the pitch was in perfect condition and the new public address system blared away. During the warm-up I took three of our mini- rugby players out on to the pitch to meet some players and watch events at close hand. After five minutes or so, one of them went very quiet and I enquired if he was OK since he looked a little pale. "I'm fine," he said, "it's just that I'm so happy that I think I might faint." At the end of the game I saw him again - this time with all his mates - milling around Lynagh, Sella, Bracken, Diprose, Hill, Johns et al, collecting autographs in the middle of the pitch 20 minutes after the final whistle had gone. Now, when that sort of thing starts to disappear, the game really will have changed and then I will begin to worry.

Today we take on our local rivals, Wasps, at their new home of Loftus Road in west London - an all-seater stadium with a 19,000 capacity. Both teams will be eager to build on good victories last week, and you can rest assured that minds will not be focused on the win bonus, but on honour, pride, commitment and the pursuit of excellence. Just like they were last year.