Synthetic pleasures as Saracens step forward into a brave new world
Cheerleaders, temporary stands behind the goals, a different tune played after each player's try – yawn, nothing to see here. A synthetic surface, more secure scrummaging, 900 youngsters playing on the pitch in the morning, 250 smiling volunteers, half-price beer after the final whistle – is this the dawning of an age of enlightenment in English rugby?
Saracens' urge to innovate may not carry all of north London with them, let alone the rest of a conservative country unsure how to take this once tiny concern's mix of brashness and earnest family values. If the self-styled "opening day" at Allianz Park was anything to go by, with a second four-try bonus point of the Premiership season including three tries from the props Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens in a 31-11 victory over Exeter Chiefs, the nomads settling at their new home have a sense of timing that will carry them to sporting and commercial success.
Frankly, the commercial bit is in the bag. The South African investment vehicle Remgro has pumped £25m into redeveloping the tired old municipal athletics arena previously known as Copthall Stadium. To quickly build a big new east stand at the refurbished athletics stadium with the likelihood that the venerable west one will be replaced in due course, based on a capacity for the time being of 10,000, suggests benefactors with very deep pockets.
The German bank Allianz is said to have paid £8m to sponsor Saracens and add the stadium naming rights to those they have in Munich and Sydney. This ground is a 10-minute drive from the home of the Saracens chairman, Nigel Wray, who also went to school locally, and he is bringing his nose for property deals to the project rather than the hard cash he pumped in during the early days of the open era when he led Sarries' jump from the dog-poo park pitch of Bramley Road to sharing Watford FC via sharing with Enfield FC.
"It's amazing to create this stadium in the heart of London," said Wray, glossing over that Hendon NW4 is not quite Charing Cross, but doubtless aware that some mob called Harlequins are trading under the brand "Heart of London". "The pitch will be used by kids, schools, the community all day long for ever. We can already see the importance of having a home. I think this stadium will be sold out, week after week. [The borough of] Barnet is the 10th biggest town in the country and there's a massive audience here."
Having taken the scissors to his tee, trimming off the lip so he could ease the edges down into the 65mm synthetic grass, Saracens' former England fly-half Charlie Hodgson missed three kicks in the first 19 minutes. Gareth Steenson, for Exeter, did likewise in the first half. The pitch is all about the purchase under the studs. Pundits predict fewer soft-muscle strains from slipping and stretching but possibly greater stress on the lower leg if it is jammed in the tackle. There is give in the surface, which looks flat and immaculate to the spectator, but essentially the foot once planted stays where it is – witness the props staying steadier at most scrums, though there were three resets and three penalties.
Stevens, retired from playing for England, went over in the 49th minute after Hodgson's smartly taken try and conversion had Saracens 7-3 up at half-time. Vunipola, released by England to play here after doing substitute duty so far in the Six Nations Championship, took a crash ball at pace to blast past three Exeter tackles on 53 minutes. The dynamic 22-year-old collected his second try with a spot of seagulling outside the left wing Dave Strettle, though the finish of a sidestep round Jack Nowell and a dive past Jack Yeandle justified the second airing over the sound system of Vunipola's personal anthem, Sade's "Smooth Operator".
"I was playing with the England Under-20s in Argentina, it came on in the stadium and I remembered it from there," said Vunipola. "Some boys gave me banter, saying I'd never get to hear it [for scoring]. Hopefully, I showed the England coaches what I can do."
Last week he witnessed first-hand the cut-up Aviva Stadium paddock that gave good old-fashioned grass a bad name. "The game was a lot quicker [here] and the ball got through the hands," said Vunipola. "Hopefully, other teams will see this as hope for the future. On a hot day you might smell the burn of the rubber crumb, but you get on with the job." His left hand was swollen and bandaged after being accidentally stamped on – some things do not change.
Whereas Saracens are pursuing a treble, Exeter's last five Premiership matches have brought four losses and a draw, and they have one win in nine overall; mixing it with Clermont Auvergne and Leinster in Europe was tough in mid-season and they need to find enough points in the next few weeks to have a chance in their closing matches with Wasps and Gloucester to requalify for the Heineken Cup.
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