Sarries head for Barnet via Wembley
Champions expect record club crowd against Quins as they get permission for new home
Saracens, the Premiership champions, expect to obliterate the world record for a club rugby crowd by filling Wembley to its 90,000 capacity for this weekend's derby against Harlequins, who have been making the running in the league since mid-September. They are also confident of getting the hell out of their ramshackle base at Vicarage Road in Watford, where audiences struggle to reach 9,000, in good time for Christmas. Eric Pickles, the prop forward-sized Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has given them the all-clear to create a new home in Barnet.
The previous best mark for a club match was set three years ago, when 82,208 Irish supporters congregated for a Heineken Cup semi-final between Leinster and Munster at Croke Park in Dublin. The Londoners will beat that figure with plenty to spare and while heavily-marketed "specials" do not necessarily reflect the reality of Premiership popularity countrywide, it is still a watershed moment in the development of professional club rugby.
"When we first played a game at Wembley back in 2009 and pulled in a crowd of more than 40,000, Nigel Wray [the Saracens owner] said he hoped to sell the place out in three seasons," Mark McCall, the title-holders' director of rugby, said yesterday. "People laughed." He resisted the urge to point out that they are not laughing now. Instead, he added: "It says a lot about the English game that we can put on an occasion like this one."
According to McCall, the club will continue to stage games at Wembley – twice a season, perhaps three times – after they complete their move to the Copthall Stadium in Barnet, which will hold approximately 80,000 fewer spectators than the home of English football.
"It has been a long and sometimes painful process," he said, referring to the complexities of seeking planning permission for the new venue. "But we're now very hopeful of moving in around December time. For whatever reason, Vicarage Road hasn't worked out for us: we haven't drawn the crowds we feel the team deserves. I'd like to think we'll draw those crowds to Barnet."
There will be almost as many spectators at Wembley as there have been rumours about the make-up of England's full-time coaching team, the announcement of which is – how shall we put this? – rumoured to be imminent. Saracens, current employers of Andy Farrell, insisted yesterday that they had still heard nothing from Twickenham regarding the former Great Britain rugby league captain's services.
Stuart Lancaster, front runner for the job as head coach, wants to build on his Six Nations success by retaining both Farrell and the forwards specialist Graham Rowntree. However, McCall was blunt in pointing out that as far as he was concerned, Farrell remained a Saracen. "Since the Six Nations finished, there has been absolutely no contact from the RFU," he said. "The situation is simple: Andy is a Saracens coach. He's a huge part of what we do, a huge part of our plans."
With one member of Lancaster's red-rose squad, the Northampton flanker Calum Clark, scheduled to appear before a disciplinary tribunal tonight to answer a charge arising from an incident in the recent LV Cup final that left the Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins nursing a fractured elbow, there was another high-profile citing yesterday. Ben Youngs, the World Cup scrum-half who was the scorer of England's second try against Ireland 12 days ago, has been formally accused of striking the back-row forward Jamie Gibson with knee and fist while playing for Leicester at London Irish.
The citing officials have also gone after the Harlequins flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu following a heavy open-field hit that left the Bath fly-half Tom Heathcote, a less formidable physical specimen, in a crumpled heap during last Saturday's match at the Stoop. Fa'asavalu, outstanding for Samoa at last year's World Cup, has been charged with dangerous tackling.
One of Fa'asavalu's back-row partners at the global gathering, Ofisa Treviranus, has agreed a new deal at London Irish that will keep him at the club until 2014.
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