Peter Deakin had a gift, long before he had a brain tumour. The prosaic, day-to-day story of running a rugby club became an adventure when it was told from Deakin's lips. It still does.
As for the tumour, the onset of which last June forced Deakin home from watching the Lions in Australia, it is being dealt with in typical fashion. No fudge, and no sympathy either, thanks all the same. A midweek call to Saracens, where Deakin is in his second spell as chief executive, got the response: "He's up north, getting a biopsy, but he'll be back tomorrow."
And sure enough, he was. "Well, do I sound the same as I did before?" he asks. No doubt about it, Deaks. After taking his impressario talents to Warrington Wolves and Sale, Deakin is back in the employ of Saracens' owner, Nigel Wray, still making the drive to increase crowds and revenue sound like fun.
Yet even the relentlessly forward-thinking Deakin admits he has noticed a change. "It's given me a new lease of life," he says. "There's a bit of a cavalier attitude. Don't get me wrong, I regard myself as a good pro. But I understand what people mean when they talk about putting life into perspective."
Although he has the all-clear from the doctors, Deakin must occasionally combine a visit home to Warrington with a check-up. The regular train journeys are spent thinking up new ways for Wray to claw back some of the £12m he has spent these last six years. Deakin resigned from Sale in March, having had a hefty hand in shaping a team who now stand second in the Premiership – eight places above Saracens, who host Bristol in their final Premiership match this afternoon knowing that defeat could mean finishing bottom.
"The problem with Brian Kennedy [the Sale owner] is that he is just not patient," said Deakin. "Whether it's Bradford Bulls [the club where Deakin made his marketing name], Saracens, Warrington or Sale, it's the same. There are no short cuts. You don't buy success, you've got to earn it. We're looking at a crowd of 11,000-plus today, and you might ask how the hell we are holding up the crowds. If anything identifies the principles of what I'm saying, of building a base, that's it. I love Brian, but I told him to his face, he's wrong."
Which is not to say that Wray wants to continue burning a hole in his pocket, or that Saracens are satisfied with winning one trophy in the open era. "You don't need a perennial doormat of a team, obviously," said Deakin. "But we're averaging crowds that are third behind Leicester and Northampton, who have an awful lot going for them. I put a short-term, three-month plan in place when I came back. The playing squad has gone downhill fast, and confidence is low. We've got to recruit better players than we've got. We needed four or five major signings to give us a chance next season, plus a head coach."
Filling the latter role will be Wayne Shelford, the former All Black No 8 and latterly coach of North Harbour, whose arrival signals the end of a hiatus period following the departure of Francois Pienaar. Two Australian coaches, Tim Lane and Greg Smith, came and went under terms that were not all together clear. "Greg's been gone for over a month," said Deakin. "I asked him to spend a couple of weeks with us, and make a performance report. He wanted to extend it. But there's no time for sentiment."
Shelford, however, is here to stay. His limited knowledge of the English scene since he last played for Northampton in 1993 has prompted Deakin to take a lead in player recruitment, with advice from Shelford and senior players. Christian Califano, the France prop, and Welsh lock Craig Quinnell were the first signings, although Califano's former club, Toulouse, have threatened legal action, claiming first rights to the eminent loosehead when he returns from Auckland.
Deakin is having none of it. "Califano's signed a contract with me, through his agent," said Deakin. "His current contract is with the New Zealand Union, not Toulouse."
Unlike Califano, Quinnell has a lot to prove. The younger brother of Scott has played in London before, at Richmond, yet his Wales career has been in fits and starts. Some may see it as a gamble on a 20-stone lock who, although he has played around 20 times for Cardiff this season, has yet to shirk a reputation as a non-trier. Having outbid Sale for Quinnell's services, Deakin is, naturally, upbeat. "The best is yet to come with Craig. I believe I've got a head coach who will switch him on. He's big enough and tough enough; we'll soon have him clearing out those rucks."
Quinnell has not been selected for Wales's two-Test trip to South Africa next month. Similarly, the summer starts this evening for Saracens, who have failed to qualify for the Championship play-offs. Neither, following the rejection of Rotherham's promotion bid, is relegation a worry. It is a decision that has Deakin's full support. "Nobody is going to watch Rotherham, and I don't think anybody ever will. Over the next three or four years you'll see a significant growth in the equity value of the Premiership. It's paramount we stay really focused, and only take in clubs who are really going to contribute." Just as Deakin continues to contribute to the Saracens crusade.Reuse content