The opportunity is there to lead the way and break new ground. To develop a way both of running and of playing the game which is our style, a unique style, not a cut and paste version of someone else's.
The focal point of the game in England is the clubs, be it the local heroes of the town or the Premiership club on the doorstep. The national set-uphave seen the virtue in trying to create the club ethos at England level with the "Club England" project. It is this club identity, the family feeling, that gets the blood boiling - a common sense of purpose from fans and players alike. Northampton and Newcastle bore testimony to this in their passionate cup quarter-final last weekend, everyone shouting or playing for their team, their "family".
This "club in the community" theme is the key to success in professional sport. A strong, continuous bond between the local people and the players - get this right and every other aspect will begin to look after itself. At Saracens, the "Rugby in the Community" programme is the flagship of everything we have done since our move to Watford last summer. The club is striving to be an active participant locally, to have regular contact with schools, clubs, organisations and charities. Since August 1997, more than 4,000 local youngsters have been involved in the community programme and, with a commitment from the Saracens' playing staff, they have met the big names in the process. Attached to this is our "Tickets for School" scheme, which allows youngsters to watch Saracens play at Vicarage Road.
Another project that has had a huge impact is the "CashBack" scheme. The basis of this is that clubs, schools and other organisations take a block of tickets to sell and are given back a cheque from Saracens for half the value of their sales. Since the launch of CashBack at the Bath game in early December last year, over pounds 22,000 has been given back to the community and more than 115 organisations have benefited. Clubs have been able to plan tours, schools have purchased more sports equipment and charities have increased their revenue while enjoying their visits to see Saracens - it's a win-win project. One local Watford club, Fullerians, have generated over pounds 2,000, and have reinvested some of this back into Saracens to sponsor the first XV skipper, Tony Diprose, who will present his playing kit to them at the end of the season. At our game today against Wasps nearly pounds 20,000 will be given back to organisations.
This type of community work helps to change the image of Premiership clubs milking the game. In all honesty, we knew that the local junior clubs would be a little hesitant when Saracens first moved to south-west Hertfordshire, but they are now queueing up to be part of the programme. This is because the club and the players have made a commitment - they are within reach, accessible and visible.
We believe that the top professional players should not be taken further from this idea by playing at a "provincial" level, but should be able to keep the club as their focus. It has taken a lot of time and energy to develop a familiarity and identity, so why create another tier and have to do the same again?
Professional rugby union in this country does not need to reinvent the wheel. What has happened before means there is no blank page, but let's not go against what is already in place. Some other sports have missed an opportunity to build on what is good about their sport. Rugby union can do this now. At Saracens we are trying to set a benchmark in terms of community development; the club must become part of the immediate area and the people will become part of Saracens.
It has long been recognised that rugby union, especially in England, is a sport at the forefront of development in terms of foundation and participation at a grass-roots club and school level. Of course, there are problems and failings: there has been insufficient investment in the "product" itself, the game; some junior clubs feel helpless in the professional era; remote decision-making at national level has highlighted an inability to govern the sport effectively and, perhaps most disturbingly, one of the great team sports in the world may be losing some of its values. But these are not insurmountable if the will is there.
Let's change, but let's do it in the right way. Be innovative, be exciting, but play to our strengths. The key to the future will be the continuum from school to club to national level, and spectators will identify with this. Let the clubs be the workplace of the players; it's in their interest and it's part of the culture already active in England.Reuse content