Lynagh fulfils all the great expectations

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The Independent Online
Opening day, and Saracens were ready with their goodies; marching band, soaring balloons, kiddy-time cartoon figures - and Michael Lynagh.

Observed in the hitherto unlikely setting of Enfield Town Football Club, Lynagh was even better than Nigel Wray had imagined. "Until today I'd only seen Michael play in big stadiums so it was fascinating to see him close up," Wray said.

Even for the leisure and property tycoon who is funding an attempt to establish Saracens as a force in the new world of professional rugby, Lynagh is a big investment.

Not, on this form anyway, that Wray needs to worry. Lynagh brought more to an important 25-23 victory for Saracens than qualities that have established him as one of the great half-backs in history. Not for Lynagh the notion that north London is a comfortable pasture in which to contemplate retirement.

Here was an outstanding footballer living up to his reputation, providing his team-mates with unquestionable proof of integrity. Not just the unblemished goal-kicking, the artful links, the spin pass that have become Lynagh's trademark, but an attitude to gladden the hearts of his new employers. "We just told him to go out and play like he did for Australia," the Saracens director of coaching, Mark Evans, smiled.

Riven by internecine strife, enmeshed in the inevitable problems raised by a blinkered plunge into professionalism, rugby enters a brave new era in an atmosphere of concern and uncertainty.

On radio before Saturday's match, Australia's former coach Bob Dwyer, who has been engaged by Leicester, repeated his belief that the next great explosion in rugby will occur in the northern hemisphere. "There is more potential in English rugby than any other country," he added.

For Dwyer and Lynagh, who formed an important alliance for Australia, the present ills are thus disturbing. "I find it sad," Lynagh said, "because there is a great opportunity for the game over here."

Whether rugby can pay its way, achieve the financial stability to sustain entrepreneurial enthusiasm, is another matter. On a day when there was no competition from Premiership football, not one club was able to report a full house. And how long will advertisers and sponsors settle for a television audience that struggles to exceed six figures?

For Wray, however, it remains a rosy picture, the car parks full on Saturday, an attendance of around 6,000 - five times more than Saracens could count on at Southgate. "There is still a lot to be done," he said. "We need to improve our facilities, make it a place that will attract whole families."

A north London equivalent of Tottenham Hotspur? A pipe dream, of course, but it will be a shame if imported virtuosity does not encourage an upsurge in interest.

If the merely curious made up a proportion of Saturday's turn-out, Lynagh did not disappoint. In common with outstanding performers in every sport the Australian makes few demands on the audience; it isn't necessary to probe for hidden qualities in his game or to appreciate some subtle tactical role in the wider scheme of things. He is, quite simply, a thrilling player, blessed with balance, vision and marvellous hands.

Articulate, too. "I didn't wake up thinking that it would be difficult to hold our own," he said. "Apart from Philippe [Sella] and Kyran [Bracken] there are some very good players here so there is no reason why Saracens shouldn't do well."

Shorter than you think, his eyes penetratingly blue, Lynagh quickly came up to expectations, giving Saracens a handy lead with three penalties and releasing Richard Wallace's exciting pace.

Uncharacteristically careless, embedded in a policy of attrition that saw them opt for a series of scrummages after being awarded a penalty close to the Saracens line when 13 points down and time running out, Leicester put some furrows on Dwyer's brow. "Saracens were basic and okay," he said afterwards. "We were basic and awful." And what of the old war horse Dean Richards for whom there may no longer be a place in the modern game?

The imperative of entertainment shone through the play that had Saracens sitting pretty at 25-9 with five minutes left. It will be no consolation to Dwyer that Leicester then came close to victory. John Liley and Rory Underwood took advantage of lapses in concentration to score converted tries and Liley's penalty from half-way in injury time was only just short. Saracens breathed again and deserved to.

Saracens: Try: Bracken. Conversion: Lynagh. Penalties: Lynagh 5. Drop Goal: Tunningley. Leicester: Tries: Liley, Underwood. Conversions: Liley 2. Penalties: Liley 3.

Saracens: A Tunningley; K Chesney, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; M Lynagh, K Bracken; G Holmes, G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns, T Copsey, J Green, T Diprose (capt), R Hill. Replacement: M Langley for Green, 43-45.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, N Malone, R Underwood; M Jones, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, E Millar, D Richards (capt), B Drake-Lee.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).