Rugby Union: Saracens disrupt old order with new money

ALAN WATKINS ON RUGBY
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The Independent Online
THIS is the season when the rugby world has been turned upside down. I do not refer to the dispute between the Rugby Football Union and the English clubs, with the international board under Vernon Pugh, (an old pupil of my school, incidentally) now taking a hand. I am talking rather about the way professionalism has transformed the traditional pecking order of the clubs.

It has principally been an English phenomenon. But there have been signs of the new era in Wales as well. Only Cardiff and Swansea have managed to maintain their old predominance.

Llanelli are shadows of the once great team they used to be. Neath have always been an up-and-down sort of side, but these days they are more down than up. The main reason is that they have difficulty in hanging on to their best players - a factor in operation at Stradey Park as well as The Gnoll.

Both Llanelli and Neath have now been overtaken by Ebbw Vale. I ask you, Ebbw Vale! They used to have a regular fixture with Esher, who definitely have not prospered under the new regime. Currently they are fourth in the Jewson National League Two South.

Other clubs have done better. The Rotherham MP, Denis MacShane, writes regularly urging me either to visit his local constituency - which I hope to do one day - or at least to mention Rotherham RFC. This I now do. They are fourth in the Allied Dunbar Premier Two, and may well overtake London Scottish, only a point ahead of them, to take third place.

If things had gone differently and Nigel Wray had not appeared on the scene, Saracens might have found themselves below Rotherham, below Esher, on a par with Streatham-Croydon - in whom high hopes were once reposed, chiefly because of some stirring performances in the Middlesex Sevens - but who now find themselves outside even the Second Division South.

Saracens have always been a popular side. Everyone wished them well, chiefly because they never appeared to present a threat. They nevertheless attracted some distinguished players: certainly some players who subsequently distinguished themselves such as Terry O'Connor, the rugby writer, and Iain Macleod, the late Conservative minister.

Their ground was surprisingly easy to reach, once you got the hang of it, on account of the great speed of the Piccadilly Line to Southgate. It belonged to the local authority and was so muddy that it would not have been tolerated even in the wettest corner of south-west Wales. Had it been in that part of the world, you would have seen young boys and old men passing buckets of sand along a human chain until the pitch was partly playable - though to make the old Saracens playing area, to say nothing of other facilities, even half-way decent would have required major public works.

The move to Vicarage Road, Watford, with the club sharing the ground with Watford FC, has been a great success, not just because Saracens are in the Pilkington Cup final for the first time at Twickenham on Saturday and are still possible winners of the double, but also because they have succeeded in attracting new supporters.

It is not so much that they wear the fez which Ataturk prohibited in his new Turkish state, it is rather that they turn out in force. To get a gate of nearly 20,000 for a club match, as Saracens did for their recent encounter with Newcastle, is an achievement these days.

Wasps are also in the final, their fourth appearance, the three previous ones all unsuccessful. The club which holds the record for runner-up, by the way, is Leicester, with five. But the Tigers possess the consolation of having won the cup five times, too, being second only to Bath's 10 victories.

Wasps' move to Loftus Road, as tenants of Queen's Park Rangers FC, has not worked nearly so well. The ground seems echoing and empty. Last season I saw them beat - no massacre - Toulouse there. There was hardly a ripple of excitement.

Richmond, likewise, are now planning to move to a new ground at Reading, to be shared with the football club. Last Saturday the announcer contented himself with promising to keep the fans informed. The villains here are not the Richmond club but the Richmond council. Many years ago, before the club went professional, a prominent member complained to me that the local council took no interest, still less pride, in the club and, indeed, seemed keener to obstruct than to assist.

I am sad but not surprised to see that the council are maintaining this attitude and refusing to allow the club to redevelop a site which (provided the small Edwardian pavilion is preserved) is ideal for redevelopment.

In France the local authorities are pleased to support their rugby teams, who play in fine, modern, municipal stadiums. I wish we could see a similar municipal pride over here. There is, I fear, little chance.

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