Deakin still the supreme showman

Despite his serious illness, the Saracens chief executive is keen to see his vision for rugby union's future realised.
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It has not been the greatest of weeks for Peter Deakin, the prodigal chief executive of Saracens and principal architect of what might be called the Broadway approach to professional rugby. On Wednesday, Rotherham lit a small fire in the pants of half a dozen Premiership clubs, including Sarries, by signing a ground-share deal for next season that virtually guarantees them promotion ... and, therefore, relegation for someone else. Twenty-fours later, there was news from Ireland: Matt Williams, the super-sharp Leinster coach, would not be leaving Dublin to take up the top-dog vacancy at Vicarage Road.

Deakin had worked overtime on the Williams project – "The most important appointment for this club right now is this one, the director of rugby," he had said, before taking the call that told him what he did not want to hear – and he will consider it a failure. But the words he might have used a year ago – shock, bombshell, calamity, bolt from the blue – are no longer a part of his sporting vocabulary. For Deakin, genuinely bad weeks do not happen in rugby. They happen in real life, and he knows all about them.

Last June, doctors told him he had developed a brain tumour. While the treatment has gone as well as he could have hoped – "The radiotherapy has left me with with a brain like a microwave and it's still cooking away up there, but the medics reckon I could be in full remission within days," he said – the old both-ends-of-the-candle style of management is off-limits. "The illness knocked me sideways, as you can imagine, and I take a more pragmatic view of things as a result. I believe I'm still effective, but in a quieter way. The days of behaving as though I'm bullet-proof have long gone."

During his heavily armoured phase, the former professional rugby league player with the main-chance instinct of a marketing genius drove forward the Saracens revolution with the zeal of a power-suited Robespierre. He conjured a new rugby audience out of the thin air of football-obsessed Watford with his bold, brassy initiatives: loud music, dancing girls, half-time kicking competitions, remote-controlled tee-carriers, cashback schemes, community programmes and a notoriously naff deal with a local chip shop entitled "Wendy's Five-Minute Madness". If the traditionalists hated it, the bank manager loved it: in the space of two seasons, Saracens' season ticket sales went from 187 to 4,500, and their gate, once numbered in tens, peaked at almost 20,000.

He left Vicarage Road in January 1999, seduced by his love of the "other" code and the opportunity to run Warrington Wolves. (It was, he says, "a fairly average decision".) He then left Warrington, albeit with a spanking new 14,500-capacity stadium, to join Sale, and was busily dragging the backwater Cheshire club into the current century when his illness was diagnosed. Within weeks, he was back in circulation and working 12 hours a week at Heywood Road. Then came the call from Nigel Wray, the Saracens owner, who had been severely shaken by his club's slide into low-table anonymity and the failure of the ambitious and dictatorial Francois Pienaar to press the right buttons.

"The deal was done in 48 hours flat," said Deakin. "Nigel had been, and continues to be, an incredible friend to me during my troubled times, and I suppose he sensed that I was ready to be tested again, to face up to a real challenge. Sale had been using me as a consultant – they didn't know if I'd ever be back on a full-time basis, so they naturally employed someone else – and while I was still playing a primary role in the strategic planning of the club, it wasn't like being a boss. I was twiddling my thumbs a little, to be honest, and I was not meeting my own expectations of myself. When Nigel gave me the chance to start running things again, there was only one likely answer."

Happily, the ideas factory situated in Deakin's mind is still working at maximum capacity. "I have two or three really good things on the go," he said, positively aglow with the potential of it all. "One has something to with text-messaging, another with a very clever merchandising strategy developed by the LA Raiders." He sees American Football as the business model par excellence, a benchmark against which all professional sports might usefully judge themselves. And talk of the NFL naturally leads him onto the subject of relegation and his campaign to shake the old-style rugger-buggers clean out of the tree.

Saracens travel to second-placed Gloucester today, and defeat at Castle Grim will leave them up to their waists in the Premiership quicksand. Deakin, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the end-of-season play-off competition (despised by some, merely disliked by others) and a keen supporter of a relegation-free franchise arrangement for the élite clubs, is as flabbergasted as ever by the "commercial madness" of sending big-name, big-money teams through a hole in the floor.

"Look at the NFL, Aussie Rules, Super 12: no relegation there," he said. "We have a very definite mindset in Britain, one that seems able to understand sport only through the culture of promotion and relegation. Our emotional attachment to team sports is rooted in it. But there are other quality events – and I've just named some – that don't allow themselves to be caught up in this kind of commercial trauma. In a professional game, relegation is bad business. And bad business leads to extinction. That is not scare-mongering, it's hard fact.

"We're meandering around the issue at the moment, but we'll reach the franchise stage one day because ultimately, it's bound to happen. Rugby is not like football; the business base in rugby is not strong enough to bear a relegation system. Given time, the sporting public here will learn to love a different, more sustainable set of values. Five years down the road, we might even have a draft system along the lines of NFL, through which the less successful teams from the previous season have first pick of the new talent graduating from the rugby academies. But for that to happen, the academies need to work. And if they are to work, the clubs putting in the finance and manpower need a sense of security."

Nothing if not provocative, Deakin has any number of new-fangled schemes up his sleeve. But he is presently engaged in running a rugby club, not heading up a think-tank, and results over the next five weeks will shape his, and Saracens', future.

"I don't think things have been handled particularly well for a couple of seasons," he said, referring to the upheavals of the Pienaar regime.

"If the chemistry isn't right, you're in for a rough ride. But we are moving towards a break-even budget next year, and we have some fantastic talent about to come on stream: five of our players are in the England Under-19 team, we make up half the Under-18 side and we have another six or seven in the Under-16s.

"What is more, the old buzz is still here: we pulled in 11,000 for our match with Bath a couple of weeks ago – a crowd we had no right to expect for a ninth-plays-10th game – and there was an intensity in the air that afternoon that reminded me why I became involved with union in the first place. Have I changed over the last few months? Of course I have. But not to the extent that I no longer want to put on a show for the public."